Although actors-turned-directors aren’t something new, it is a relatively recent phenomenon that these directorial debutants experience significant initial success. Last year alone, directorial newcomers Jordan Peele and Greta Gerwig made very successful debuts with “Get Out” and “Lady Bird,” both of which received positive receptions both critically and commercially. Jonah Hill has managed to continue that trend into this year, with his first feature writing and directing credit, “Mid90s.”
Starring Sunny Suljic (“The Killing of A Sacred Deer”), “Mid90s” is a coming-of-age story about a 13-year-old boy, Stevie, who deals with the emotional instability of his burgeoning adolescence by hanging out with a group of older skaters who, although caring and good-natured, lead Stevie down a precarious path. Stevie’s problems are made worse by a difficult home life, where his troubled older brother Ian (Lucas Hedges) beats him constantly, and where it is clear that his mother (Katherine Waterston) is far too young and inexperienced to raise children on her own.
The story jumps back and forth between Stevie’s interactions with his family and his new friends. As Stevie’s family situation worsens, his behavior follows suit, enabled by the people around him and the tough street skating scene he’s becoming a part of. Although the title itself is an homage to the glorified time period the film is set in, the film itself is a deeply personal exploration of a group of troubled young men.
Although there are plenty of comedic moments and skating sequences throughout that help move things along, there are also some slow and deliberate moments that don’t pull any punches and can be uncomfortable to watch. You’ll find that these young men’s bad attitudes and bad decisions are all symptoms of much more serious personal problems, including poverty, familial troubles and mental health issues. Two specific scenes to watch out for are a powerful performance from Lucas Hedges as Ian during an altercation with Stevie, and the conversation Stevie has with Ray soon after. All of these moments are perfectly handled by Hill’s direction who, despite handling topics like underaged sex and drinking, drug abuse, physical and emotional abuse and even death, ensures that none of these moments ever feel cheap or gratuitous.
The same can be said about the time period and the skating in the movie. The soundtrack is a great mix made up of mostly 90s hip hop, with some punk, pop and R&B thrown in, as well as an original score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. You’ll see popular 90s brands and media like Street Fighter and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles all over the place, but none of it is ever shoved down your throat. It’s only there to help establish a lovingly crafted mise-en-scene which does a great job of immersing the audience in the story. All of the skaters in the movie are very skilled, but the skating sequences aren’t about showing off skills and complicated tricks, and the skating acts as a thread that runs through the movie and brings all of the characters together by providing a setting for the characters to navigate.
Jonah Hill also proves to be a very talented writer and director that should have a promising future in filmmaking. Hill does a great job of showing us these situations as they would happen in real life, and letting the audience form their own opinion; there is no emotional manipulation or any ethical statements made in this movie, even when racist, misogynistic and homophobic comments are made by some of our protagonists. These behaviors are never presented sympathetically, but simply shown as they would happen in real life, and as someone who is familiar with street skating culture and the people surrounding it, I can tell you that it can get as ugly and mean in real life as in some parts of this film.
Hill also had the wherewithal to get himself a talented and experienced cinematographer. The movie is shot completely on Super 16mm film in a rare 4:3 aspect ratio by cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt. The resulting graininess and color scheme works wonders in transporting the audience back to the mid 90s and of capturing the mood and tone of the film. Some might see this style of shooting as gimmicky, and I’ll admit that while it definitely wasn’t necessary, it was handled well and made the film all the more enjoyable.
Although Stevie is a strong protagonist on his own, much of what there is to like about the film comes from the ensemble cast around him. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that Galicia, Smith, Prenatt and McLaughlin are not professional actors, and this is their first feature acting credit. Most of them are involved in professional skateboarding, but they all did a phenomenal job in this movie and I wouldn’t be surprised if some of them went on to act in other projects.
Verdict: Despite dealing with extremely harsh and sensitive topics, “Mid90s” marks a great directorial debut for Jonah Hill, and shows promise for his future projects. The film handles its somber and serious themes well, making it a must see for fans of drama and organic storytelling.