I didn’t grow up in the mid 90s, nor was I into skateboarding. I didn’t smoke, drink, and get high when I was in my early teens either. I grew up in the mid-to-late 80s and I was what the cool kids called a “square”. I sat in my extremely clean and tidy bedroom on the weekends and practiced my guitar and listened to hair metal. My parents never divorced and we all got along. Dinner at the kitchen table during the week, going out for pizza on the weekend and hitting the video store afterwards for some flicks.
So despite my lack of nostalgic feelings for the mid-90s(I don’t have fond memories of the 90s in general) I was completely drawn into the world of Jonah Hill’s Mid 90s. I felt for the young 13-year old Stevie, desperately looking for acceptance from older brother Ian that seemingly resents him for some reason. I can relate to his attraction to a group of older kids with names like Ray, Fourth Grade, Fuckshit, and Ruben that seemed to have it all figured out. The expletive-filled banter, the bonding over their shared love of skateboarding, girls, and the freedom that comes from leaving the protection(and in some cases the dangers) of home. The film isn’t a narrative-led kind of movie, though. It’s more like a few months in the life of this 13-year old kid trying to find a place to belong, and for a while he finds one.
Watching Mid 90s I was reminded of movies like Kids, Over The Edge, and even The Outsiders to some extent. They were all movies about groups of kids finding some kind of place to belong, albeit some being far more dysfunctional and unhinged than others. Mid 90s sits somewhere in the middle of those films. As a parent of teenagers I was a little appalled at the conversations between these teen boys, and even more appalled by the copious amounts of tobacco, weed, alcohol, and overall bad behavior emanating from their friend group. At 13 I would’ve steered clear of those kids at all costs, but that’s just because I grew up in the isolated Midwest as opposed to the sun-bleached ground of California.
Jonah Hill does a very good job of working in minute details; from the CD and Nike Air collection in Ian’s bedroom to the Super Nintendo games and skateboards. He’s obviously very close to the source material, and it shows in the overall look of the film.
Sunny Suljic does a tremendous job as Stevie. He balances the sweetness and innocence of a 13-year old boy looking to fit in, both at home and and in this new group of friends, with a deft touch. There are some truly painful scenes to watch, and Suljic performs them beautifully and with brutal honesty.
Lucas Hedges as Stevie’s older brother Ian is an absolute wonder. Hedges is becoming one of my favorite actors, having completely destroyed me in Manchester By The Sea. As Ian, he plays the boorish bully of an older brother. But that’s just the surface. You can see that just below there is a traumatized little boy lashing out at his younger brother for reasons we never quite know. One poignant moment is when he tells his younger brother about their mom, “She was different when I was young”, leading us to believe Ian’s childhood was far rougher than his younger brother’s was.
All of Stevie’s skate crew did a great job as well, despite all of them pretty much being non-actors. The banter between them all gives the impression they’ve all known each other for years.
The use of music is tasteful as well. There are the obvious choices(Pixies, Nirvana, Souls Of Mischief), plus some nice surprises(ESG, Mamas and the Papas, Morrissey.) One of the most surprising and nearly perfect music moments was during a party scene when one of the crew walks into the house with a single tracking shot as Herbie Hancock’s “Watermelon Man” plays on. One of the best pairings of song and scene I’ve seen in a long time.
There are four original pieces by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross that are sweet and sublime, and work to counteract the sometimes summer fun/danger we see going on.
What stops Mid 90s from being a great film is the lack of focus with the main characters, and the main characters being Stevie and his brother Ian. While the skate crew is important, there seems to be a lot of story not being told between the brothers. I think Jonah Hill missed an opportunity to dig deep into the family and maybe allow for some growth between Stevie and Ian. I think there was some potential for a really great deep dive there. And the ending falls flat after the traumatic events near the close of the film.
Overall, Mid 90s is well worth diving into. Whether it’s to relive your skateboarding and hooligan youth or not, it’s an enjoyable place to visit. With some great performances, gritty look, amazing skating and music, Jonah Hill’s ode to a misspent southern California youth will, much like hitting the hard pavement, leave its mark on you.