We’ve reached a point in time where the 1990’s as a setting represents material for a period piece. That makes me feel old, but it also makes Jonah Hill feel nostalgic. His directorial debut “Mid90s” is certainly reflective of a bygone era, but it also manages to be unsentimental. Hill has pulled off an impressive directorial debut, one that showcases a confident hand behind the camera. Playing as the Secret Screening at the 2018 New York Film Festival, it’s a unique treat. Anyone who grew up in this era will notice things (the opening shot features one of the Wrestling Buddies that I used to own, for example), but that’s hardly the only thing to praise here. This movie has something to say. Moreover, Hill has something to say.
“Mid90s” sets itself apart with some really solid filmmaking. Credit to Hill for opting to tackle such a specific subject matter this first time out. More on his crew later, but he also managed to get some great folks to score and shoot his picture. Having Scott Rudin produce and A24 release doesn’t hurt either. While this isn’t “Lady Bird” in any way except sharing those two factors, it’s another confident debut by an actor. This year, and the past year or so in general has seen a lot of this. It’s a real boon to the industry too.
Taking place in Los Angeles during, you guessed it, the middle of the 1990’s, our protagonist is newly minted teenager Stevie (Sunny Suljic). At school, Stevie doesn’t fit in. At home, his troubled brother Ian (Lucas Hudges) beats him, while his mother Dabney (Katherine Waterston) has issues of her own. Stevie hasn’t found his place in life, though he’s a good kid. Then, through Ruben (Gio Galicia), he meets a skateboarding crew, which opens his eyes to the larger world. Led by the often sage-like yet charming Ray (Na-kel Smith), the gang also consists of the nicknamed Fourth Grade (Ryder McLaughlin) and Fuckshit (Olan Prenatt). Stevie is looked at as just a little kid at first, but slowly, he is welcomed.
As Stevie becomes an accepted member of the group, he begins changing. He hardens. Part of that is obviously the influence of older kids. Some of it is also caused by a breaking point with his brother. It isn’t one thing. It’s all that, combined with just understanding the difficulties of the world around him. Things never turn into “Kids,” but there’s a definite darkness always lurking in the shadows of his life. In addition, what Stevie learns about his friends allows him to understand just how different everyone’s backgrounds are. It’s never heavy-handed, but lessons are definitely learned.
Sprinkled throughout “Mid90s” are some very realistic performances. The bigger names of Lucas Hedges and Katherine Waterston are firmly supporting players, with Sunny Suljic front and center. If anything, Hedges and Waterston are slightly underused, though Hedges does get to show a whole new side of himself. Suljic is a real likable protagonist. Even when he gets into some bad behavior, his humanity and kindness still shine through. Among the crew, Na-kel Smith is best, showcasing a real screen presence. Gio Galicia, Ryder McLaughlin, and Olan Prenatt are fine, at times more annoying than anything else. That being said, that’s kind of the point with them. Supporting players here also include Jerrod Carmichael, Alexa Demie, and more.
Jonah Hill shows a real aptitude for filmmaking. If you didn’t know ahead of time, you’d never guess that “Mid90s” came from him. That’s a compliment. His comedic/dramatic voice as an actor sinks away and he tells this very distinctive story. While Hill’s writing doesn’t cover any new territory, he gives it a lived-in style that sets it apart. You could argue that more of Stevie’s dysfunctional family would have been desirable, but that’s his filmmaking choice. In terms of direction, it’s gritty work in the best way. Armed with a tremendous score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, as well as strong cinematography from Christopher Blauvelt, the technical prowess of the film is undeniable. Hill keeps things short and well-paced too. He’s clearly got a specific feel for how to make a movie, which we luckily see come to fruition in a compelling way.
As much as anything else, “Mid90s” leaves you excited to see what Jonah Hill does next behind the camera. He’s got the goods, plain and simple. If his debut is a bit hard-edged for some, it merely suggests the layers that he has as a storyteller. Hill shows no signs of first-time filmmaker syndrome, which is a delight to witness. From here on out, he’s undoubtedly a triple threat. NYFF was lucky to score this work. Hopefully, he’ll be returning to the fest soon with his sophomore feature.