Mid90s: Not Just Nostalgia

Alex Tesson ‘19

My grade is the first to almost entirely be born in the 21st century. CA seniors are mostly 2000s babies, the start of a generation of students cut off from the now nostalgia-ridden decade that is the 1990s. I was therefore a bit cautious when walking into the theater to watch Jonah Hill’s directorial debut, Mid90s: would I not “get” the movie because of missed references to a decade I didn’t live through? Would the movie rely too heavily on nostalgia towards a decade I had missed? The movie, after all, is about a thirteen year old boy coming of age in the 1990s. Maybe I would have liked Mid90s’ slightly better if I was able to participate in its nostalgic references, but I didn’t end up needing to do so – I loved every second of it.

Jonah Hill, better known as “that actor in the mediocre comedies who’s always on the tail-end of fat jokes,” completely defied all expectations set for him with Mid90s. The movie is subtle, sophisticated, and smartly written, everything Hill’s characters are usually not. Instead of the clamorous, slapstick comedy Hill often takes part in as an actor, Mid90s provides deep character development and interesting dialogue interspersed with quiet moments of comedy that feel natural and lifelike. I also grinned widely multiple times throughout the movie after a song by “A Tribe Called Quest” or “Wu-Tang Clan” slipped in behind dialogue. Hill credits much of the movie’s tone and imagery to the music he put in it, and this is apparent in the perfect synergy between visuals and soundtrack.

 

Hill’s directorial departure from his acting style is assisted by the pervasive theme of skate culture. The protagonist, Stevie, played by Sunny Suljic, spends the movie quickly falling in love with skate culture after stumbling upon a group of high schoolers deeply entrenched in that golden era of skating, defined by baggy t-shirts and handheld camera footage of kickflips and ollies. Skating is about having fun and finding your place in a niche community, making it the perfect backdrop for this coming of age story. Stevie truly comes alive when he reaches little victories with his newfound friends, from getting invited to his first party to screaming in joy after completing his first trick on a skateboard. No matter when you grew up, seeing an innocent smile spring across Stevie’s face will bring you right back to your middle school days.

 

In addition to Suljic’s performance, the movie isn’t just a lighthearted throwback to childhood. Stevie’s home life is heartbreaking, between his mother coping with raising two sons by herself and his older brother’s frequent verbal and physical abuse. Watching a thirteen year old boy smoke a cigarette on screen was jarring, and I found a few scenes genuinely difficult to watch, particularly one that included sexual abuse and another that depicted Stevie being brutally beaten. Mid90s displayed a more poignant, mature side to Hill that I had never really seen, and I’m excited to see what more he has for store in audiences in the future.

 

Other than Hill, the person who deserves the most praise for this movie is Na-Kel Smith, who plays Ray, the ringleader of Stevie’s group of skateboarder friends. He acts wise and level headed, and rapidly becomes the male role model Stevie had been lacking his whole childhood. Stevie admires Ray the way we all admired the “big kids” when we were young, infusing a timeless sense of familiarity into their interactions. Smith brings Ray to life with his seamless combination of effortless poise and striking maturity, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see an Academy Award nomination come his way this year.

 

Unfortunately, Mid90s has one flaw that was difficult to ignore: with a total runtime of 84 minutes, its pacing suffered. I could feel the moments in the movie where Hill tried to take things slow, which were immediately followed by rapid fire plot points, making the flow of the story feel awkward. Maybe this isn’t even Hill’s fault, and just the result of post-production teams overzealously chopping away at a much longer film. Either way, after the lights turned back on in the theater, I felt like I would have enjoyed spending twenty extra minutes with Stevie and his friends.

 

Even though its length and pacing made Stevie’s mental transition from naive little boy to socially aware adolescent feel a bit rushed, the transition is still a joy to watch. I grew attached to Stevie by the end of the movie, and felt like I had actually just spent part of my life hanging out with his group of friends for a bit. The way skate culture is almost its own character in the movie ensnared me in its niche vibe; at times I felt nostalgic towards 90s skate culture, a culture I’ve never been involved in during a time before I was alive. Mid90s relies on nostalgia to draw its audience in, not just to the 90s, but to the universal experience of being a kid and growing up just a bit too fast. Most of us have never been skateboarders, but all of us can find a part of ourselves in Stevie’s journey through the world around him.