As one who came of age in the 1990s, it’s surreal to me that we have now moved far enough beyond that decade to look back with nostalgia, to set a film in the ‘90s and accurately refer to it as a period piece. We now even have a film explicitly titled Mid90s, though curiously it feels less like an evolved distillation and more like a time capsule. The key to understanding a moment in time is to move past it, acquiring perspective by way of distance, but Mid90s doesn’t feel like a film about the ‘90s but of the ‘90s.
Surely that was the intent for Jonah Hill, who makes his debut as a writer-director with this coming-of-age tale of strife and skateboarding, of searching for oneself within a rebellious subculture. Shot entirely on 16mm film and presented in the intentionally boxy 1.33:1 aspect ratio, Mid90s plays like an amalgam of an indie skate video and an unearthed quasi-companion piece to Larry Clark’s Kids, a cross-section so intentional that it loses any innate spontaneity. Its immersion feels inauthentic, a calculated stunt that calls attention to itself at every turn. The “90s” of the title isn’t so much the film’s lifeblood as it is its costume.
Not that the film is purposely disingenuous; to the contrary, it is about as earnest as any film you’ll see this year. It wants badly to be something…it just doesn’t know what that something is. Hill’s script wants to meander like a cinematic stream-of-consciousness but is inexorably drawn to high-impact moments-of-truth, constantly reminding us this is a predestined narrative. He clearly has affection for his characters, but doesn’t really know them; each of them is aggressively typed, leaving the actors – a mixture of respected names and debuting non-pros – to walk a shaky line between parody and sincerity. The film is dotted with moments of uncanny levity but is punctuated by such forceful melodrama that it’s impossible to tell whether this is a warm story of friendship or a cautionary tale, and it lacks the nimble confidence to be both.
Hill has stated clearly that his film is not autobiographical, but informed by his experience growing up amid the skater counterculture of the titular timeframe. I share a version of that experience – in fact, I see parts of myself in Stevie (Sunny Suljic), young and impressionable, living a sheltered life with a single mom (Katherine Waterston), a kid who doesn’t know the language or attitude of the dudes at the local skate shop, but sees something aspirational in the skater ethos. For me, that was the appeal – a freedom among freaks, an island of misfit toys. And yet, even on the island there are split factions, the legit versus the posers. I was always sort of a poser, a lonely white boy from a lower-middle-class community who didn’t fit in, so I co-opted the skater label. It wasn’t my identity, but it was an identity.
Perhaps that illuminates why this screenplay is confused in terms of its point of view – it can’t decide if Stevie is legit or a poser, and that lack of clarity impacts every downstream decision for the film’s themes and characters. Mid90s offers us intermittent doses of both perspectives, portraying different versions of its characters from one scene to the next, hinting at significant themes that never fully materialize, and taking harsh tonal right turns without motivation or payoff. It’s a film as restless as the lost adolescents it depicts. That may eventually be a positive indicator for Hill as a filmmaker. He’s not content with the ordinary and is hungry to present something fierce and vital. Mid90s is lost in the weeds, but eventually Hill will find himself.