There comes a time in a person’s Hollywood career when they feel like they should be taken seriously. That time came in the tail-end of the 10s for Jonah Hill, the transcendent master of stupid comedy and inexplicable voice acting stints in various animated films. From Sausage Party to 21-22 Jump Street, he’d become somewhat of a joke straddling between fun and trashy outputs; but, a star role in the ambitious and thought-provoking Maniac series later and a first taste of directing, incidentally for Danny Brown’s Ain’t it Funny music video, it seemed there was becoming more to Jonah Hill than gag movies. So what better to test that than by trying his hand at an indulgent piece of nostalgia porn in his directorial cinema debut?
Part of A24’s fast-growing library of somewhat unorthodox gems, mid90s feels right at home with company like Lady Bird and Midsommar, inherently off-beat, charming and nuanced. And as an ode to its titular time setting, shot entirely in 4:3 and with a blurry-dark colour pallet, it certainly looks the part.
There’s nothing else to it, though: mid90s smacks of nostalgia porn, through and through. Hill and his production team put together a team of misfit trendy actors, dress em all up in baggy jeans and colourful t-shirts, and together with that warm and fuzzy filming direction, it feels like a pleasant wavering memory — but there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. Particularly from the perspective of someone who never actually lived through the 90s, it’s fascinating to see a portrayal as lovingly accurate as this seems to be, and it plays just as much like a historical microcosm as a transcendental coming-of-age piece.
In fact, it feels like they used this setting with the intention of exploring it, rather than just using it as an aesthetic tool, and in doing so avoiding a pitfall many modern film-makers have fallen into. By exploring it, Hill and co. approach it with an uncompromising eye for detail, and a refreshing lack of fears of offending current mainstream audiences with the viewpoints and mannerisms of a time long past. Sickening as it rightfully is, the N-word is brazenly used a million times, kids tell each other not to say “thank you” for fear of being perceived as gay, and so on. But it’s in this unrelenting portrayal of since-changed attitudes which separates mid90s’ use of time-setting with that of Stranger Things’ loveletter to the simpler times of the 80s. There’s little exploration of the misogynistic and racist attitudes of the time in the latter, but the former is unafraid to explore them, and in that it finds its greatest and most powerful moments.
Following the tumultuous story of 13-year-old Stevie’s (Sunny Suljic) summer sprawling domestic abuse and a turbulent new friendship with older skaters, mid90s, effectively, encompasses a powerful coming-of-age tale for both its nominal character and the society in which it is set. Bouncing between profanity laden political incorrectness and moments of nuanced beauty, this directorial debut is amusing, shocking and touching in equal helpings. From fellow young teen Ruben’s troubling attempts to be gangsta by making every effort not to be gay to older kid and wannabe-pro-skater Ray cautiously opening his heart in genuinely heartwarming scenes in acts of honest kindness, there’s a juxtapositional atmosphere created here that plays like the 90s’ reluctant first admission to let boys cry, as freeing and difficult as the journey of Stevie himself.
Rolling in with a nice, short n’ sweet hour-25-minutes run-time, mid90s doesn’t beat around the bush in any regard, and it’s all the better for it. Subtly meandering across party scenes, skating get-togethers and moments of self-harm and violent abuse, it plays like a film-reel, blurry off-shoots and all, telling a story through moments and imagery rather than classical dialogue. Moments, which, are made yet more memorable by a fantastic use of score, which showcases what seems like a thousand hip-hop tunes (including Tribe’s Sucka Nigga, ayO) and an ambient soundtrack composed by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, which, work hand-in-hand to poignant results.
It’s not all good, however. As per with the majority of directorial debuts, this film probably won’t remain Jonah Hill’s best effort. Moments like Stevie’s sexual exploration with an older girl, are, honestly, uncomfortable and to a degree disturbing — ironically pushing that uncompromising nature a notch too far, as much as I hate to admit it. The ending, too, while in hindsight a nice one, doesn’t feel as hard-hitting as its most poignant moments, which, to me, feels like a shame. Perhaps Hill was trying too hard to push a message through? Maybe he could have entertained us a tad more? All that can be explored in his future directorial efforts as he dusts off the rough edges.
Rough edges intact, though, and this remains a wonderful and meaningful watch, created with a grassroots integrity that feels, for lack of a better word, real. Portrayed with acting excellence, especially from such a young and (relatively) unheard of cast, and punctuated by a score as aesthetically on-point as its visual pallet, mid90s is much more than just a bit of nostalgia, and comes instantly recommendable to anyone in the mood for exploring their adolescence.