Mid90s Movie Review
Well, that didn’t go as I expected. Jonah Hill’s directorial debut Mid90s, I assumed, was a coming-of-age story about a 13-year-old boy named Stevie who falls in with a group of older skateboarders because they show him more adoration than his bully of a brother. It is that, but then there’s a scene where Stevie tries to strangle himself with a video game controller cord while his brother screams relentlessly in the other room. That’s normal, right?
Mid90s is an entertaining, tight, and somewhat unpredictable tale of youth and experimentation that perhaps dabbles more with serious subjects than fully addresses them. Sunny Suljic is terrific in the lead role, bringing to the screen a performance that straddles the line between young naivety and reckless abandon, a proven recipe for disaster. Even his appearance is perfectly suited for the role, his childlike attributes casting him as a fragile doll among monsters.
For a first-time filmmaker, a skateboard-centric coming-of-age tale is a pretty safe bet; the focus isn’t on the direction all that much. For what it’s worth, Mid90s is solidly built, Hill avoiding the over-the-top directorial gimmicks that often plague burgeoning filmmakers. Thanks to the outfits, props, settings, and of course the acting and writing, Mid90s feels like it’s ripped from the time period; the attention to detail is spot-on.
It’s the detail that Hill keeps hidden that makes you want more, though. Hill hints at bigger things—Stevie’s self-harming, once addressed passively (“is he trying to hurt himself?”) and then more overtly (the aforementioned cord scene), is touched upon but never fully explored. His older brother, played well with limited screen time by Lucas Hedges, has his own issues, also never explored. Their mom (Katherine Waterston) is barely an active player, but is that because of the story or demons from her past, hinted at but never explained? And perhaps most interestingly, the dynamic between the skateboarders and the maturing of the eldest, played by Na-kel Smith, pulses just beneath the surface.
Hill touches upon each of these elements that he introduces, but seems satisfied with doing just that, treating them more as indirect factors in Stevie’s evolution than story strands that need full explanation. The approach works for the most part, but there are some gold mines here and that could have taken Mid90s to new heights. Hill seems most to have wanted to stay focused on the skateboarding crew, but while he shows Stevie’s unraveling in his attempts to become more acclimated with his new friends, he only begins to highlight the unraveling of the friend-group at large, a fascinating dynamic in its own right.
Mid90s is a strong debut effort by Jonah Hill and features a great performance by young Sunny Suljic. The film’s taut 85-minute runtime pays plenty of dividends, but the drama could have been so much more had Hill been willing to invest more time in his characters’ development.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.