Jonah Hill's directing debut, Mid90s, is a deeply personal, deeply flawed exploration of skate culture
Mid90s is about Jonah Hill.
It’s not literally about the longtime comedic actor (made famous by Superbad), making his solo writing and directing debut here. The plot features no self-aggrandizing version of him, instead following lonely outsider Stevie (Sunny Suljic, The Killing of a Sacred Deer) as he attempts to insert himself into the 90s L.A. skateboarding scene, finding his way in through a scrappy bond of dedicated skaterats: aspiring pro skater Ray (Na-kel Smith), the hard partying Fuckshit (Olan Prenatt), quiet doofus Fourth Grade (Ryder McLaughlin), and fellow youngster Ruben (Gio Galicia). For Stevie, the allure of the this world lies in its potential for escape; at home, he’s beaten frequently by his fiery older brother Ian (Lucas Hedges, Manchester by the Sea) and feels distant from his oversharing, slightly naïve mother Dabney (Katherine Waterston, Alien: Covenant). Only elements of this story mirror Hill’s own life, primarily the notion of trying to fit in with the boldness of skaters and hip-hop aficionados as a teen struggling with insecurity. But the film is intrinsically still about the real Jonah Hill, the version he’d like you to see beyond the limelight afforded to him by his sudden superstardom. Such a personal closeness to material can be a gift, allowing an artist to peel back the layers of mystique surrounding a culture or even the artist themselves to reveal the truth within.
However, in Hill’s case, such a closeness is a curse.
This is a film that pulls no punches in its portrayal of the struggles of working class L.A., but does little to interrogate the conditions behind what drives these misfit kids to seek out the escapism afforded by skating culture, both in the spiritual freedom afforded by riding and the lurid temptations of sex, drugs, and booze that permeate through its inner circles. Hill isn’t afraid to portray some of the ugliness of this lifestyle: the looming specter of toxic masculinity. The casual homophobia. The physical abuse. The addiction. However, his affection holds him back from really diving into the why of these issues. He offers up a wide swath of Demons Thesaurus-style skeletons in the closets of these characters, from addict parents to poverty to the grief of losing a loved one. None of these feel authentic, but rather scriptwriters 101 details meant to illicit cheap sympathy. There’s a fear in the script to bring in what’s happening outside the purview of the lens, the issues in 90s L.A. that really drove the rebellion of its unique skater culture, from police brutality to racial strife. Everything of real importance exists on the edge of the frame, present but never really coming forward in a way that would lead one to believe Hill has anything new to say about this era. He has a realist approach, visceral and neutral, but when we see Stevie get beaten again and again or drink himself into a stupor, all at a very tender, vulnerable age, that sort of filmmaking has a responsibility to use these grim events to ask questions. Hill doesn’t take much time to ask any.
Stevie is the center of the film, the object through which Hill channels his own demons surrounding his youth. The parallels between the two are clear, with Stevie’s insecurity, anger, and penchant for self-harm standing for the obvious discomfort and pain Hill has dealt with coming up in the industry. Despite his obvious acting talent, Hill has often been mocked and dissected over issues with his weight, reduced in the tabloids from a promising star to a “fat kid” comedy stereotype. Here, Hill is obviously grappling with the effects of dealing with these sorts of insults at a formative time in his life. He takes control of his own narrative, using a kid not exactly like him in appearance but in hesitance that allows him to explore a part of himself he’s never felt comfortable with exposing. That’s admirable enough, but the curve balls he hurls at Stevie perhaps aren’t the most appropriate methods of exploring inner pain: the self-harm scenes are pretty shocking, perhaps line-crossing, and the abuse Stevie endures at the hands of his brother are badly mishandled. Hedges does his best bringing Ian to life, but his macho rage and posturing hiding a sensitive, hurting interior seems to suggest his abuse is understandable, even forgivable. Because Hill is so hesitant to criticize his characters, to really ask them any hard questions, it feels as if he’s indifferent to their actions, both positive and destructive.
There’s flashes of brilliance to be found, namely the performances and Hill’s natural skill behind the camera, aided by strong work from cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt (Certain Women). Shot in the old 4:3 Academy ratio, the tight framing allows for Hill and Blauvelt to capture these characters as if mere inches from their very souls, making the more emotional moments of the film intimate and impactful. Hill clearly has a patient eye, knowing when to reserve his flashier tendencies as a director and let his actors do the leg work. Smith is a genuine find as Ray, bringing a sensitivity to a film in dire of need it, and Suljic does his best with what is ironically a pretty underwritten role. He has that sort of genuine childish tenderness, both in his smile and in his ability to evoke pain, that is needed to make a kid-driven film feel authentic. These elements give you the feeling that something truly special is ready to emerge, but they merely serve as distractions from the film’s lesser parts.
Mid90s, like the era it depicts, is buried deep in flaws. Unlike more successful coming-of-age films, including this year’s stellar Eighth Grade, it lacks the courage to dive headfirst into the deeper, personal horror of the failings and anxieties of youth. It opts instead for the shock value of grit and grime, something skate culture probably will find admirable, but it’s clear Hill for was hoping to create something deeper, a film not held back by nostalgia but instead brave enough to deconstruct an era many are wistful about. Instead, he’s held back only by himself. In the light of everything we’ve done to him, can we blame him?