Mid90s is a period hangout movie
There’s no denying that Mid90s is the effort of a first-time filmmaker, but there’s also no denying that this is a filmmaker with a serious future ahead of him. I am speaking, of course, of Jonah Hill, whose period-set skater hangout movie is, by some, being touted as Lady Bird for boys. That’s a hell of a compliment given the love for Greta Gerwig’s extremely successful directorial debut of her own, and while the comparison is certainly apt, to me the two movies are linked less by thematic/plot concerns, and more by the accuracy with which they depict a very specific time — both of which I–and the intended audience for each movie–have lived through.
There’s something so weird about seeing my adolescent years regarded as retro, but I guess I should get used to it. Such is the nature of time. With that in mind, part of the fun of watching Mid90s is playing “haha OMG I totally used to have/do that” bingo. The period detail is impeccable. While watching the film, I put together a list of period details which caught my eye:
Super Soakers, Ren & Stimpy, Mobb Deep, Super Nintendo, Desert Storm, Big Brother Magazine, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Beavis & Butthead, frosted tips, Discman, and Goodfellas being broadcast on network TV.
The list goes on, of course, but the point is that Jonah Hill, in creating the world for his story, clearly comes from a place of authority, as he was also an adolescent at the time in which the film is set.
Plot-wise, there’s not much happening here, which is certainly by design. For most pre-teens and teens, the dog days of summer aren’t very plot heavy times. For the most part, you’d hang out with friends doing whatever it is that brings your crew together before heading home in time for dinner. Lather, rinse, and repeat until school starts again. And for our protagonist Stevie (Sunny Suljic), this involves meeting up with his new skater friends during the day, and then trying to survive the bullying of his older brother Ian (Lucas Hedges) while under the care of his young single mother (Katherine Waterston) at night.
Right off the bat we are given a small amount of exposition as Mom, while treating her eldest son to dinner for his 18th birthday, remarks that during her own 18th year, she was breastfeeding him. This is about all we get regarding the family’s background, but it’s all we need. Mid90s is filled with small character moments which provide narrative thrust. For example, as Stevie becomes endeared to his new social group, we get a small sense as to each of their backgrounds simply through the way they act and react to the events of the day. It isn’t until later in the film that any of the things we are forced to assume are made concrete. When this eventually occurs, the revelations are a shock to Stevie, but not to the adults amongst us who have been informed by the heartbreaking wisdom that comes with the passage of time.
Really, this is what the film is about. It is, by definition, a coming of age story. We watch as Stevie tries a few different social hats on for size, while the world around him gets bigger than he could have ever imagined. We watch too as his mother learns what it is to protect her children while also allowing them room to grow. Ian, now the one adult man in the household, has to figure out what that role means for him — is it responsible for him to be at odds with with his little brother? Shouldn’t he, a young man who ostensibly grew up without a father try to be a role model instead?
There’s a lot of heady stuff going on here, even if none of it is explored very deeply. But in a way, that’s what keeps Mid90s moving. It’s not here to browbeat a message so much as it wishes to depict a youth experience with vitality and honesty, while sneaking a few laughs in by the very nature of it coming from an inarguably comedic brain. A brain which, as evidenced by the directorial craft on display, will likely bring us plenty to enjoy from behind the camera in the future (No lie, this has one of the most artistic depictions of a car accident I have ever seen).
More so than Lady Bird, I’d say Mid90s shares DNA with Skate Kitchen, another coming-of-age skater hangout film from earlier this year. Both seek examination of the same themes, and amongst their central skate crews the character archetypes are almost identical (think of that moment in Shaun of the Dead when the crew runs into a mirror image of fellow survivors). While I think Skate Kitchen is the better film (it has a bit more to say, especially since female coming-of-age films are few and far between), Mid90s proves to be the easier watch due to the many moments of crass, abrasive humor inherent to hormonal little boys with something to prove.
When the credits rolled (which I stuck around for to get a soundtrack listing - it’s excellent), I lamented my inability to travel back in time to my early teenage years, if only so I could play some Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater before going to bed.
Mid90s opens in Philly theaters today.