In the interest of full disclosure, I should point out that writer/director Jonah Hill’s Mid90s could not have been more perfectly tailored to hit my specific nostalgia triggers had it been written with me in mind. I was a wannabe skateboarder during the period the film covers, at approximately the same age as its pubescent protagonist, and as such, engaged in pretty much the same shenanigans that are shown on screen. So bear in mind that my evaluation of the film is entirely subjective, and the score I’ve given is probably at least one star in excess of what I might expect from someone without the same emotional attachment to the subject matter.
And if there’s one arena in which Hill’s film excels, it’s in conjuring the atmosphere of that subject. From the costumes to the soundtrack to the set design, every detail is pitch-perfect, evoking a time and culture that have long since come and gone. Following a band of teen skate punks in ’90s LA, this is occasionally something of a double-edged sword, as hearing period-appropriate slang — specifically, the casual and pejorative use of the term “faggot” — can be unsettling and more than a little cringe-inducing from a contemporary perspective. The devil is indeed in the details, but for those of us who came of age during the era in question, the accuracy of those details can prove remarkably affective, if not always fun.
While the script is solid from the standpoint of dialogue, its structure is intrinsically flawed. It’s worth noting that this is Hill’s first foray into feature directing and therefore bears many of the first-timer flaws, from a visual and aesthetic perspective. Hill’s camera movements are often excessive and unnecessary, his attempts to tart up otherwise acceptable setups with gratuitous tracking shots redolent of a paucity of experience behind the camera. Still, he coaxes excellent performances from his central cast, that he may well be a competent director once he develops a greater sense of stylistic restraint.
And that cast is uniformly solid, albeit distinctly low-budget. Perceptive viewers may recognize star Sunny Suljic from The Killing of a Sacred Deer or The House with a Clock in its Walls, but he’s in a distinctly different mode for his first lead outing as protagonist Stevie, aka “Sunburn.” Suljic carries the film with graceful understatement, selling the aw-shucks naiveté and adolescent angst of his character while seldom overplaying his hand. The only other known quantities here are Katherine Waterston and Lucas Hedges as Stevie’s harried single mom and abusive older brother, respectively, with relative newcomers Na-kel Smith, Olan Prenatt, Ryder McLaughlin and Gio Galicia rounding out Stevie’s skate crew. Considering the fact that the actors with the least experience are left to do most of the heavy lifting here, it’s laudable that Hill was able to accomplish the level of naturalism on display.
Mid90s is raw in the right ways, but it’s also far from perfect. The last 15 minutes of the film are a catastrophe of ill-conceived after-school-special cliches, and the whole thing ends so abruptly and implausibly that I found myself questioning whether or not we had been presented with a completed print. These shortcomings could have been easily remedied with a quick rewrite and an extra five minutes of denouement, making them all the more frustrating in a film with so much to recommend it going into the home stretch. Even if Hill failed to stick the landing entirely, it’s clear he at least learned the most important rule of skateboarding in his youth: There’s no shame in falling if you were trying to go big.