REVIEW: Modern nostalgia is on full display in "mid90s"
Disclaimer: “mid90s” is an R-rated film. It features strong language, drug and alcohol abuse, and some sexual content, all involving minors. If you do not wish to see these things represented on film, I would strongly recommend avoiding this movie.
Acting on Nostalgia
Nostalgia is a powerful force, and its presence in all forms of media is constantly evolving as younger people grow up to become the artists that shape the media we watch. '80s nostalgia has been a dominant factor in the recent film and television landscape, and now it looks like the kids who had their formative years in the '90s are wanting to make their voices heard.
“mid90s” is the first feature directorial effort of Jonah Hill. The actor, primarily known for his comedic work in films such as “21 Jump Street” (2012) and “Superbad” (2007), has displayed a surprising amount of versatility in more dramatic roles, earning two Oscar nominations for his roles in “Moneyball” (2011) and “The Wolf of Wall Street” (2013).
Is Hill the latest actor-turned-director to deliver a surprisingly strong debut film in 2018 à la Bradley Cooper and John Krasinski, or is Hill’s film just a passion project getting more attention than it deserves because of the name behind it?
“mid90s” follows Stevie, a 13-year-old boy living in Los Angeles sometime in the mid '90s . I would wager around 1996, based on the prominent use of the song “Kiss From a Rose” in the background of one scene. The film follows Stevie as he navigates a difficult home life consisting of his physically abusive older brother and overwhelmed single mom.
Stevie finds fellowship with a group of high-school aged skaters who take him under their wing. The new family he finds in the group gives Stevie the freedom and friendship he felt he was missing but also brings on new pressures that come with the lifestyle he is falling into.
If there’s one word to use to describe “mid90s,” it would be authentic. Jonah Hill goes to great lengths to make his film look and feel like the time period it’s representing. From the aspect ratio to the type of film used, it genuinely feels like a product of the mid-90s. It’s rough around the edges, but it’s supposed to be. “mid90s” is a time capsule for a specific moment in history Jonah Hill clearly feels a strong fondness for.
While Hill nails the aesthetic and effectively creates a story that feels genuine and true, the film left me feeling empty. We are thrown into a very specific time and place with so much character and life, yet I am stuck feeling a disconnect, never fully understanding why so much care and love was attached to this story or this period. I’m sure a story could be told in a way that allows me to care about what these characters and Hill clearly have affection for, but “mid90s” misses that mark. Given everything it does well, this is disappointing.
Much like the rest of the film, the performances have an authenticity to them. The characters feel like real, complex people dealing with real struggles. Unfortunately, much like the rest of the film, we only get a feeling that the complexity embedded deep within these characters exists. In part, a monologue in the second half of the film that decides to fill us in on every bit of character information it thought we needed to know is to thanks, evaporating any further interest I had in understanding these seemingly multi-faceted individuals.
Stevie, played by promising up-and-comer Sunny Suljic, serves as our main character. His defining trait seems to be how well he can take a hard hit, which is where the sound team deserves a huge shout out as the real MVPs of this film. Stevie’s desire to belong somewhere is compelling to a point, but I mostly feel bad for him—not because of the circumstances he’s trying to get away from, but because of the ones that he makes for himself. He’s just a little kid who doesn’t seem to know any better and makes a string of bad decisions.
The thing that doesn’t click with me is that the film is hard to decipher in terms of how a scene is supposed to make you feel. One scene in particular was especially uncomfortable as an older girl lures a susceptible Stevie into his first sexual experience. It’s an entirely disturbing scene that is then immediately celebrated by his friends whom he so looks up to.
My feelings may just be representative of my own personal values, but the film presents this situation and others in a way I don’t feel fit the affectionate lens the film views them through. It isn’t until very late in the film that the mood starts to shift on Stevie’s behavior. Unfortunately, the film ends on an “uplifting” note before we get any sense that Stevie actually understood the cost of his decisions.
Too Niche for Comfort
“mid90s” is an admittedly well put-together, nostalgia-fueled, slice-of-life film that authentically captures a unique moment in time with a loving touch. Regrettably, the film’s questionable morality and emotional dissonance overwhelms a promising story about a seldom represented subculture in a film too niche to be considered anything more than a “hidden gem” by the handful of people it is sure to connect with.
Whether or not Jonah Hill has a future in directing is yet to be decided, as he has created a film so specific that it’s impossible to tell what he’s capable of in a different setting. While this first effort didn’t land for me, I am curious to see where he goes from here.
Rated R for pervasive language, sexual content, drug and alcohol abuse, some violent behavior/disturbing images - all involving minors
Runtime: 1h 25min