The idea of a movie written and directed by Jonah Hill gives instant thought of a comedy from the Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg school of filmmaking, both long-time collaborators and friends of Hill. But that would be too obvious. Instead, Hill must have been heavily influenced by other directors he has worked with in recent years, notably Scorsese (The Wolf of Wall Street), the Coen brothers (Hail, Caesar!) and Tarantino (Django Unchained). If these parts have been an effort to step away from his homogenous on-screen persona, birthed by his part in the iconic Superbad, his directional debut with Mid 90s is his latest act of rebellion. But after watching his mere 83 minute coming-of-age tale, I couldn’t help but wonder if Jonah Hill’s newfound auteurism would work better as a Rogen and Goldberg-directed skit.
Mid 90s is Hill’s semi-autobiographical story and follows thirteen year old Stevie (Sunny Suljic) in 1990s Los Angeles. He is burdened by an absent father, struggling mother (Katherine Waterston) and abusive older brother (Lucas Hedges) and makes his escape to a skate shop in West LA. There he meets a group of young skaters who takes him on and introduces him to skating, drugs, girls and life of the young and restless.
As the title of of the film tells us, Mid 90s in a period piece, a time-capsule from a recent past. This is where Hill has focused much of his dedication and energy, proving himself as a surprisingly good visual director. The film is shot on 16mm film, giving it the characteristic square frame and grainy finish to supercharge its nostalgia.
The opening sequence, made up of detail shots from Stevie’s room, is not only an impressive collection of 90s memorabilia, but a flashback-inducing reminder for every pop-culture conscious millennial. The sombre lighting and minimal camera movement evokes a sense of voyeurism, like you are simply watching some random kids grow up in 90s LA. The Harmony Korrine’s K.I.D.S.-influence is uncanny, something Hill must be aware of, as Korrine makes a cameo in the film. However, what separates Mid 90s from K.I.D.S. is Hills attempt to mix grime with art house, balancing on the fine line between parody and pastiche. Hill has gotten Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (bandmates from Nine Inch Nails and the composers behind some of the greatest film-scores in recent years, notably The Social Network) to gild the film with their peculiar, sombre tunes, but the music never really gels with the film’s bleak content. Thus, Mid 90s ends up like a 83 minute music video. Hill seems to have used too much time on perfecting the details of Stevie’s bedroom than perfecting the script.
There is really no story being told in Mid 90’s, it is rather a collection of scenes from the life of a group of skaters. These are portrayed by newcomers Na-kel Smith, Olan Prenatt, Gio Galicia and Ryder McLaughlin. They are charming and likeable, but their characters are limited to one, maybe two, defining personality traits – like members of a boyband. The only character with a real character arc is Stevie himself, and Suljic’s in-your-face blue eyes and talent beyond his 13-years makes him worthy of the center stage. However, the true scene stealer is his brother, played by Oscar nominated, 22 year old Lucas Hedges (Manchester by the Sea). His turn as the abusive brother is unpretentious and surprisingly funny. His Eminem-wardrobe and “all talk, but no action”-reality is a near perfect take on white boy toughness.
It is difficult to not take into consideration Jonah Hill’s career trajectory when reviewing this film. However, this could work to his advantage. Returning to the film that introduced him to the world, 2007’s Superbad, also introduced the world to male coming-of-age in popular cinema. Coming-of-age is more often than not reserved for insecure and confused teenage girls who listed to Someday by The Strokes and lay in bed looking at the ceiling all day. With Superbad, Jonah Hill showcased the embarrassing (and hilarious) frustration of not being a cool guy in high school, but trying your hardest to be one. Now, 12 years later, he is doing the same thing with Mid 90’s. But instead of a movie where male insecurity is the punchline of the joke, Hill has made a film about boys trying to hide their insecurities. Despite under-written characters and over-directed sequences, the soul and intention of the film is crystal clear. Jonah Hill just took himself too seriously to wholeheartedly portray it.