Jonah Hill's directorial debut is a love letter to the 90s. In the opening scene, a young boy sneaks into his older brother's room. The room is full of hip-hop CDs of the era, Wu-Tang Clan and Mobb Deep posters on the wall, a row of Air Jordans on the ground, and a stack of Source magazines by the bed. In moments, the film washes the viewer in a wave of nostalgia.
This continues throughout this hangout film. Even the lack of narrative thrust is reminiscent of major indie releases from the 90's such as Richard Linklater's Slacker or Larry Clarke's Kids. Those films are obvious reference points, Hill even sneaks in a cameo from Harmony Korine. We follow Stevie(Sunny Suljic), the younger sibling to Ian (Lucas Hedges). Stevie wants to fit in. Ian regularly beats on him and his mother (Katherine Waterston) is a bit self-obsessed to catch how lonely he is. Stevie begins to hang out around a group of older kids who spend their days skateboarding. Our introduction to them is watching them harass a store owner, the store being JJ The King of Beepers to fit with the era.
Much of the film is spent as Stevie finds his way into this group, getting accepted first by Ruben (Gio Galicia) an insecure boy closest to Stevie's age. He soon becomes more liked than Ruben, which causes tension. The group is led by Ray (Na-kel Smith), the most mature and talented of the group. While the others drink and smoke, Ray is straight-edge and keeps himself focused on skating his way out of his situation. Ray's best friend is the ever drunk or high Fuckshit (Olan Prenatt). The final member of their group is Fourth Grade (Ryder McLaughlin) who is not very bright but documents the skating antics with his camcorder.
While Mid90s doesn't have much of a plot, it does have rich themes to explore.
Homosexuality, particularly the fear of being seen as gay, is prevalent. Ruben regularly coaches Stevie not to say certain things that may seem gay. We also get the sense that Ian may be hiding something about his sexuality. This is never explicit but any viewer who watches for clues will pick up on his inner battle. Other themes the film touches upon are fitting in, not letting apathy ruin you and the importance of friends. My guess is that these elements will reveal themselves with repeat watches. Mid90s thankfully is rewatchable because these characters are worth spending time with and the performance is all around great. This is impressive as few of these actors have any credits to their name. Hill trusts improvisation to bring out natural performances from this young cast.
Hill as a director gets a lot right. Aside from the performances, he has a knack for pairing a great song with a scene and letting things ride for a bit. It works in several moments with songs from a wide array of artists including The Mamas and The Papas, Herbie Hancock, and The Pixies. He also uses another strong score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross wisely. These music moments are some of the best scenes in Mid90s. While his directing is strong, there is a sense that the script needed one or two more rewrites. While the themes mentioned above are present, none of them come to any kind of payoff. He is able to capture a time period and feeling of adolescence well but to what end. I appreciate how he avoids cliches of coming-of-age films and never moralizes the smoking, drug use, cursing or drinking that the teens do but I wish there had been a little more to this film.
Still, Mid90s is a fun experience and one I will be happy to revisit regularly. It is a hangout film full of rich characters and memorable moments. Despite its rough edges and need for another draft of the script, the film captures my teenage years with clarity and love.