Jonah Hill’s directorial debut “mid90s” opens with its hero, Stevie (Sunny Suljic) getting the shit kicked out of him by his older brother Ian (Lucas Hedges). We don’t see why, but it’s not hard to guess; a short time later, Ian’s parting instructions to stay out of his room are immediately ignored by his little brother, and Hill’s opening credit sequence finds the 13-year-old kid all but worshipping the sacred objects within — jerseys, magazines, weights, cassette tape, and CDs. Stevie is of an age where these items hold immeasurable value; as is written in “High Fidelity,” published in the period in which “mid90s” is set, “what really matters is what you like, not what you are like.”
The trouble with Hill’s movie is that it harbors the same delusion, so busy displaying the appropriate needle drops and cinematic influences that it never discovers an emotional heartbeat of its own. Stevie is a likable protagonist – a short, goofy, awkward kid who finds himself entranced by the offhand cool of the skater punks in his L.A. neighborhood, and tries to teach himself how to skate primarily so he can hang out with them. Like so many 13-year-olds, he’s desperate to find a place for himself, running humiliating errands and taking stupid risks, and soon he has a nickname (“Sunburn”) and a rep (“You crazy as fuck!”).
His home life is worth escaping. Aside from the aforementioned abusive brother (Hedges, quite convincing as an angry, House of Pain-style white hip-hop fan), he has a young mother (Katherine Waterston) whose attention is fleeting at best. His new friends don’t talk much about their families, but you don’t get the impression they’re getting much support either. As so many others do, these kids fuck up because they can, and no one will really notice.
“mid90s” is presumably somewhat autobiographical, and it offers what feels like an insider’s glimpse into this world, its lingo, and rituals. But when you boil down the picture’s DNA — the skating and shit-talking, the sloppy make-out sessions, the 40s and weed — Hill’s basically remaking Larry Clark’s seminal 1995 film “Kids,” a picture inherently more authentic because it was a snapshot taken in that moment. And if you prefer the rose-colored lens of nostalgia, that’s been done too, in Jonathan Levine’s 2008 effort “The Wackness.”
Hill displays a modicum of style; he wisely shoots on 16mm, giving his images a period-authentic graininess (and a 4:3 aspect ratio), and the cutting is stylish, particularly the timed-to-music edits of a teen party sequence. (The soundtrack is, predictably, first-rate.) And the performers all come across; individual personalities emerge, and conflicts and backgrounds become apparent. “mid90s” is mostly about the strange, grown-up sensation of learning that your idols are human and fallible – that even the coolest kids you know are just as fucked up as you are.
But we’ve heard that story before. It’s an unfair comparison but let’s make it anyway: earlier this year, another young writer/actor, Bo Burnham, also made a movie about being 13-years-old. He decided his film, “Eighth Grade,” would focus on a young woman, and it would be set it in the present. In other words, he decided to take the opportunity of making a film to broaden his perspective, to learn something new about being young, and to thus make a coming of age movie that hadn’t already been done to death. Jonah Hill went in another direction. [C]