For the first time in Jonah Hill’s long Hollywood career, he has taken a seat behind the camera and created one of A24’s latest coming of age stories, mid90s. The film is a heartbreakingly honest contemplation of adolescence, one in which Hill interrogates both the core beliefs of his characters and the 90s skate culture against which the film is set. Above all, however, Hill seeks to stay true to telling his story in a way that accurately reflects how his subjects interact with one another and the outside world.
The legitimacy of the dynamics between the characters became extremely evident during the Voice’s interview with Olan Prenatt (Fuckshit), Ryder McLaughlin (Fourth Grade), and Sunny Suljic (Stevie). It was obvious that although they are not the mirror images of their characters, they do seem to maintain the same rambunctious spirit. Prenatt spoke with his melodic Los Angeles skaterboy cadence. Suljic answered questions while sitting in a skate park, intermittently joking with his surrounding friends as Prenatt and McLaughlin poked fun at him. The three seemed to share something akin to the familial bond suggested between the characters in mid90s, with McLaughlin even referring to Suljic as his “little brother.” For the uninitiated outsider, however, this dynamic is controlled chaos.
Before the viewer is thrust into that controlled chaos, the film’s opening coaxes them into a sense of calm. The birds are chirping, a soft, warm light falls across the hallway of a suburban home, a frame that’s shot using Super 16 mm film to give it that nostalgic, old home movie feel. Then, thunk. The tranquility is shattered when a little boy sprints into the frame and smashes into the wall, knocking him off his feet. Before he can even get back up, he is pounced upon by an older boy who begins to beat him. The film is punctuated by the echo of the painful thuds and thunks of these collisions but they are rarely lingered upon. The viewer watches as he takes hit after hit only to get back up and do his best to hide the flinches as he winces away the pain.
We come to learn that the boy’s name is Stevie (Sunny Suljic) and his assailant is his older brother Ian (Lucas Hedges). Ian is brooding and distant, meeting any kind of affection with stoic nods, yet Stevie still vies for his attention in the way that little brothers do. The two live in Los Angeles with their well-intentioned but rarely present mother Dabney (Katherine Waterston). These details are revealed to us in scenes that are too short and disorienting to be called vignettes, but could be more accurately be described as flashes.
The beginning of the film is composed of these little flashes. They capture the moments that stick in one’s mind on the most ordinary and mundane of days. You watch as Stevie and his family suffer through an awkward birthday dinner and Dabney reminisces upon her early days of motherhood as the pair begrudgingly listen. Cut to Stevie carefully snooping in Ian’s room, gently inspecting his Jordans and jotting down the names of albums in his CD collection. In another sequence, Stevie watches as an unnamed man walks out of his mother’s room and down the hallway. Not all of these moments are particularly poignant, but they reflect the reality of memory. They capture the way our minds grab onto both the tedious and the affectionate and meld them together.
The narrative snaps into focus when Stevie finds himself eavesdropping on the conversation of four boys in a skate shop who we come to know as Fuckshit (Olan Prenatt), Ray (Na-kel Smith), Fourth Grade (Ryder McLaughlin), and Ruben (Gio Galicia). After a brief initiation of sorts, Stevie is brought into the fold of the crew, even attaining a nickname of his own: Sunburn.
Through the second act, we watch as the crew fill their days skating, smoking, and talking about girls. They have no fear of authority, and it feels as if they have a never-ending surplus of time on their hands. They jump fences, skate down the middle of busy roads, and heckle police officers. In this group, Stevie finally finds someone and something to worship. He stumbles and lies his way through their early actions, trying his best to acclimate himself to his new world.
As time goes on, the uncertainty that lies behind the eyes of all of these boys begins to reveal itself. They cling to any scrap of what they perceive to be masculinity that they can conjure up, formulating arbitrary rules to keep themselves and one another in check. All of this in the vain attempt to conceal the fact that they’re all flailing and looking around for something to grab onto and steady themselves. The closest thing they can find is each other, but it’s obvious that this is nothing more than the blind leading the blind.
Watching the boys wrestle with this insecurity can occasionally be uncomfortable to watch. They swear incessantly and are outwardly homophobic and sexist. However, the language never feels overblown or sensationalized, merely authentic. “There’s a lot of language and situations that people might think the movie is glorifying. You have to see it from a realistic point of view because it’s literally a movie showing how that culture was and how kids were, especially in the 90s, showing that for what it is and not trying to make it PG or take out certain things,” Ryder McLaughlin said.
This play with the tension of troublesome moments rests on the performance of the star of the film, thirteen year old actor and skateboarder Sunny Suljic. Suljic plays Stevie with a certain resistance to his own youth. He has the body of a boy but tries to hold himself like a man—pulling his shoulders back and puffing his chest out—only to be defied by a paunch that reveals a corporal form not yet fully grown into itself.
As a kid born in 1998, I can’t tell you whether or not this film truly captures what it felt like to grow up in the 90s, whether the styles fashioned by the actors are anachronistic or accurate, or whether Hill looks back at the era with too much nostalgia or not enough. What I can say, however, is that mid90s captures what it feels like to live in the uncertainty of adolescence, what it feels like to imagine yourself grown but still move through the world in the body of a child. How it feels to step away from the comfort of your parents and hang onto every word of friends who know just as little as you do, and what it feels like to be handed responsibility for your life without knowing what consequences really look and feel like. Mid90s forces viewers to reassess their own recollections of their pasts. The film resists condescension, questioning acts of youthful ignorance without wagging a finger at it. In all, mid90s is a thoughtful mixture of reflection and nostalgia.