Coming-of-age stories are tough. Coming-of-age stories set in another era? Basically impossible. Every once in a while, you get a film like mid90s, one that trades in nostalgia for brutal emotional honesty in a way that feels authentic the pains of growing up. Maybe the missing ingredient was Jonah Hill all along.
Making his writing-directing debut, Hill wears his influences on his sleeve. There’s a bit of Harmony Korine’s Kids in there mixed with ’90s skate video aesthetic that gives Hill more of a jumping off point than a direct blueprint. There’s recognizable moments of pop culture, such as a Super Nintendo cartridge or a Nirvana song here and there, but everything comes second to the main function of the film: providing a character study of a young man trying to figure himself out.
In this sense, Hill nails it. Sunny Suljic couldn’t be more perfectly cast as 13-year-old Stevie. He carries with him the pain of the youth- he looks up to his abusive older brother (Lucas Hedges), has outbursts at his mother (Katherine Waterston), and struggles to land an Ollie on his skateboard.
Skateboarding is a huge component of Hill’s script. It gives Sunny an escape from the pain of his everyday life, facilitating a connection between him and a group of older boys: standoffish Ruben (Gio Galicia), aspiring film-maker Fourth Grade (Ryder McLaughlin), charismatic Fuckshit (Olan Prennatt), and wiser-than-his-years Ray (Na-Kel Smith).
Sunny’s friendship with these skateboarders forms the crux of the film. Hill is content to let the film simply focus on these boys hanging out, letting the themes of the film naturally come forward from their interactions. The ways these boys riff on each other- including the usage of some unfortunate words that, while period accurate, are sure to put some off of the film- and the trouble they get into portrays something very truthful that you don’t see in many coming-of-age stories. These guys hurtle tough love at each other, yet their interactions are filled with a subtle kind of warmth.
They all experience pain in different ways, with their friendship giving each of them a refuge from the horrors of their daily life. A moment where Ray tells Sunny “if you looked at anybody else’s closet, you wouldn’t trade your shit for their shit” is a basic insight, though no less truthful. We all have issues, it’s how we choose to make the best of our situation that defines our experience. That’s a heavy topic for Hill, and it’s a credit to his young actors- all of whom obliterate the “child actor” mold- that they’re able to make this material work without it feeling pretentious or over-reaching.
Regrettably, mid90s makes a few missteps in the third act that hamper the film as a whole. Hill opens up the conflicts between Fuckshit and the rest of the boys, leading to a series of disturbing, uncomfortable scenes that conclude in a tonally strange climax. Maybe the film was trying to make a point about the darkness youth have to face, a point that one could argue was made earlier in the film without having to go to such extreme measures.
Those issues don’t hamper mid90s overall. Your personal mileage may vary according to your upbringing, but for this critic, Jonah Hill’s writing-directing debut is an emotionally resonant piece that finally takes the “warts and all” approach the coming-of-age genre has needed for a long time.
mid90s hits theaters on October 19th!