No one would have predicted that the foul-mouthed teenager from Superbad and Knocked Up would grow into a two time Academy Award nominee and genuine auteur. And yet, here we are with actor-writer-director Jonah Hill whose roles in Moneyball and The Wolf of Wall Street forced us to take notice his acting talent and now Mid 90’s where we learn that he is a true and noble artist behind the scenes as well.
Mid 90’s stars young Sonny Suljic as Stevie, a 13 year old boy making his first steps toward defining himself as a person. Stevie is shy and doesn’t have many friends. He idolizes his brother, Ian (Academy Award nominee Lucas Hedges), despite Ian’s more than brotherly bullying and violence. Early on, we see Stevie sneak into his brother’s bedroom so he can try on his brother’s life, looking through his clothes and hats and especially his collection of hip hop records.
Ian doesn’t make it easy on his little brother, their 5 year age gap may as well be 10 or 20 years given how distant Ian is toward his little brother. Unable to connect at home, Stevie heads to the streets of Los Angeles where he falls in with a group of skateboarders. First, there is Ruben (Gio Galicia) who invites Stevie into the sphere of this tight clique as he seeks a small sidekick. Then there are Ray (Na-Kel Smith), a budding professional skateboarder, F---S--- (Olan Prenatt), a rich kid who rebels through skateboarding, drugs and alcohol and Fourth Grade (Ryder McLaughlin) a wannabe filmmaker.
Stevie’s first experience with deep friendship becomes a little dangerous as begins smoking, drinking and other experimental behaviors. It’s nothing that a lot of us didn’t get into at 13 but as presented here, with writer-director Jonah Hill’s raw honesty, it has the power of a cautionary tale without coming off as a scolding buzzkill. Hill’s work is wonderfully non-judgmental and observant and if you’re uncomfortable, you’re supposed to be.
Many assume that a movie called Mid 90’s is intended as a nostalgia piece but what Jonah Hill has actually created is a thoughtful and quite funny observation of youth and identity. Stevie is on the search for his own identity for the first time. He is making the first tentative steps toward defining himself outside of his family, his mother (Katherine Waterston) and his older brother. His choices aren’t the best but they are his and they give him the opportunity to find himself.
This search for identity is all in subtext but it is nevertheless the crux of this story being told in Mid 90’s. There is a wonderfully small scene in the film between Katherine Waterston and Sonny Suljic that captures the separation of parent and child, in terms of identity, not physical location, that I found remarkably powerful. It’s a simple exchange where mom says to Stevie “It’s Blockbuster night, what should we watch?” Stevie rejects his mother and their tradition so he can go out on his skateboard and for a moment you can see hurt ripple across Katherine Waterston’s face.
The hurt in this scene does not come from Stevie being insensitive, he’s not, but he’s unaware of how his mother sees this moment, how she’s just witnessed the first step in her son defining himself apart from her and her expectations and plans for him. She likely doesn’t realize the significance of the moment completely but that moment of minor rejection is palpable and Katherine Waterston plays the moment beautifully.
The other standout scene, in movie that brims with top notch moments, comes late in the movie and I will leave you to discover it. It’s a moment between Stevie and his older brother that is charged with emotion. As someone who grew up with a much older brother who was out of High School before I got to High School, I felt this moment so deeply and so personally that I was completely overwhelmed. You may have to have an older sibling to understand why this moment is so powerful but if you remain aware of the signifiers, you may just feel the effect as much as I did.
If you idolized an older sibling the moments between Ian and Sonny will hit you like a ton of bricks. I had forgotten about my longing as a child to be friends with my older brother. Like Stevie, I used to sneak into my brother’s room and would pay the price in brotherly violence. I wanted to hold his guitar and feel for a moment what it was like to be him. He didn’t know it, but he was my idol but part of growing up was coming to see him as human and Mid 90’s nails that similar moment for Stevie, a moment where his brother becomes human and not the embodiment of youthful ideal.
In his very first directorial effort, Jonah Hill has delivered a genuine masterpiece of style and character. Mid 90’s is funny, heartrending, thoughtful and observant. The characters are vital and lively and the story flows from scene to scene beautifully. The sun-baked cinematography and the laid back tone come together brilliantly to underline the ongoing tension of the story of Stevie coming of age and finding out who he is.
I adore Mid 90’s. This is one of the best movies of 2018.