Jonah Hill’s nostalgic directing debut is a valentine to skating culture.
This is an advance review out of the Toronto International Film Festival.
Jonah Hill’s impressive directorial debut Mid90s is full of heart, fun and a sense of longing to belong somewhere that will surely resonate resonate with audiences. Hill explores adolescence and the idea of trying to find your tribe, of doing anything to fit in and the satisfaction we get when we feel like we belong. It is also a very funny movie, with some pitch-dark moments.
Mid90s actually begins, though, like a horror movie. We look into the narrow hallway of a run-down house as Stevie (Sunny Suljic) is thrown out of a room by his older brother Ian (Lucas Hedges, in a much meaner role than we have seen him in before). Ian is beating Stevie like a ton of bricks, and the sound design amplifies each punch to do as much audible damage to the audience as they do psychological damage to Stevie. Yet as soon as Ian leaves, Stevie enters his room, admiring his brother’s posters, music collection, and lifting his weights just to feel what it would be like to be Ian. Despite the constant beatings and abuse, Stevie idolizes his brother because he is desperate for a role model.
Closed off from his brother, and with a single mom who had Ian when she was 18 and is absent most of the time, Stevie must look elsewhere for validation and acceptance. He finds it in the form of a group of kids he eavesdrops on at a local skate shop. Jonah Hill takes from his own experiences around the skateboarding community to focus on the idea of skating as a community that unites people..
The young cast (which includes Gio Galicia, Na-kel Smith, Olan Prenatt, and Ryder McLaughlin) is fantastic. Outside of Stevie and Ian, most characters are played by non-professional actors. There is a raw honesty to their performances, and every character gets a moment to shine. You feel their camaraderie and their vulnerability, as the story grows darker and the emotional baggage each kid carries becomes evident.
Hill and cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt perfectly recreate the mid-‘90s look and feel. Blauvelt shot the film on 16mm to give it the grainy, washed-out look of a camcorder that is enhanced by presenting the film on a letterbox 4:3 format, which instantly takes you back to how most people watched movies in the ‘90s, through video cassettes and VHS. Mid90s looks like an actual home video made by a group of kids in their backyard, and it really works for the film. Where most films would point a finger at every nostalgic reference, Mid90s feels naturally set in the past. (There is an early scene where Ian is trading Stevie his skateboard, and as payment he takes a stack of Nintendo 64 games, but the movie opts not to show the specific games, avoiding any obvious Easter egg placement.)
Mid90s not only looks great, but its sound instantly evokes the era it’s recreating. Besides the killer period-specific soundtrack ranging from The Cure to the Wu-Tang Clan, there’s the score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. This is perhaps their best movie collaboration to date, a haunting experimental score that starts with a piano-heavy main theme and then diverges into a variety of sounds that enhance the fun but also the darkness of the story.