Amid the cannibal comedies, twisted slasher flicks, and wild revival screenings at this year’s Fantastic Fest, Jonah Hill’s Mid90s feels an odd selection to feature. There’s no sci-fi or horror in this LA-set coming-of-age drama. And the only fantasy is the wish fulfillment angle of becoming the beloved “little dude” in a group of cool skater kids. On top of that, Hill’s directorial debut is aggressively mediocre, especially coming in the wake the heart-wrenchingly authentic Eighth Grade and the riveting Skate Kitchen, which tackles angles of adolescence and skater bonds with greater depth.
Written and directed by Hill, Mid90s centers on 13-year-old Stevie (Sunny Suljic), a middle-class kid who idolizes his angry older brother (a surprisingly menacing Lucas Hedges) but is repeatedly and violently rejected by him. Searching for acceptance and a path to manhood, Stevie bums around the local skate shop, hoping to befriend the older boys who hang there. His enthusiasm and naivete soon charm the ever-cool Ray (Na-kel Smith) and his crew. And before long, Stevie is swigging 40s, smoking weed, fingering girls, and attempting dangerous skate tricks to impress his new friends.
Hill establishes the era with close-ups of Nintendo games, CDs, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles sheets, and a soundtrack that includes Seal’s “Kiss From a Rose” and the Pixies’ “Wave of Mutilation.” He litters the film in skateboard stunts and nostalgic skater logos, and offers a nostalgic (and arguably pretentious) 4:3 aspect ratio. But there’s little emotional life to the film, despite his indulgent lingering close-ups on Suljic’s face, which flashes with elation, fury, and confusion throughout. There’s a numbing remoteness to its goings-on, whether Stevie is being pummeled by his angst-fueled older brother, barking mercilessly at his frantically concerned mom, or is thrown into a scarring car accident (like Hill himself was in his reckless youth).
Perhaps that’s because of the startling lack of vulnerability within the film. We’re following a kid who is awkwardly stepping into teendom, drinking, smoking, and dabbling in sexual activity. But he never makes an embarrassing misstep that’d urge the audience to relate or pity him, like Eighth Grade’s pivotal pool party sequence deftly did. From his first 40, Stevie chugs beer like a pro, never making an embarrassing party foul of vomit or blacking out. He goes to his first cool party and swiftly hooks up with a Cool Girl, then promptly brags to his friends. Now, this could all be seen as part of Stevie’s posturing for the group. But even on his own, he’s sometimes angry—inflicting pain on himself by scratching his leg with a hairbrush or choking himself with the cord of a game controller—but never vulnerable. The closest we come is seeing him practicing skateboarding on his own and repeatedly wiping out. But this is more a cheering montage setup than a window into Stevie. It’s the stuff of sports movie montages, not bracing self-reflection or insecurity.
There’s an uneasy sense of tourism within Hill’s representation of Stevie and his more impoverished friends. Hill, who grew up wealthy, focuses on idyllic days in DIY skate parks. He only mentions the squalor and struggles of Stevie’s friends in a single monologue that gives little more than lip service to the grim realities that skating allows them to briefly escape.
This speech by Smith is the best bit of the film, finally bringing vulnerability to Hill’s presentation of American teen masculinity. After Stevie gets into a fight with his mom, Ray gently explains that everyone’s got problems, and you probably wouldn’t want to trade theirs for yours. Essentially, he entreats Stevie to look up from his navel-gazing and see the bigger picture. It’s a poignant moment, performed by Smith with patience and nuance. However, it also turns Ray into the movie’s Magical Negro. This racist stock stereotype appears in stories that center on a white protagonist who requires some special advice to overcome his trouble. This device often romanticizes the suffering and injustices faced by black people by suggesting these struggles give them special insights into life. It also reduces black characters to a lazy plot device in white stories.
Hill seems blatantly unaware that he’s employed an offensive trope. And it’s not the only one. His characters casually insult each other as “faggots,” and refer to the girls they hang with as “bitches.” Because hey, ’90s. And yeah, that’s historically accurate. But considering we don’t look at these words the same way now, it’s tone-deaf that the film regards them with the same casual nostalgia as Ren and Stimpy t-shirts and NES gaming.
I was unimpressed by Mid90s. I found its emotional core shallow and its self-awareness non-existent. But I didn’t hate it. That is until Hill came in for the Q&A. Everything he said made me seethe, coloring my opinion of the film with darker shades of vitriol and confirming my suspicions of the filmmaker’s limited worldview.
Did you know Jonah Hill knows famous people? That seemed to be the main focus of the Q&A, where no matter the question, he dropped names like they were confetti at a kid’s birthday party. That is when he wasn’t commending himself on how his determination and hard work is how he got his directorial debut made. The directorial debut produced by A24 and Scott Rudin, with a score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, a cameo by Harmony Korine, and performances by acclaimed actors Lucas Hedges and Katherine Waterston.
I’m sure Hill did work hard to make his movie. I’m sure it genuinely means a lot to him. But in the Q&A as he repeatedly mentioned calling Martin Scorsese for advice, he displayed the privileges and advantages he has as a famous, two-time Oscar-nominated, white male movie star, while simultaneously patting himself on the back for succeeding in the face of unspecified adversity. He seemed entirely oblivious to how his struggle to get his first feature made is nothing next to the struggles faced by other directors at this same festival. And that same lack of wider awareness is likewise evident in Mid90s, to its detriment.
Now, some of you may think it’s unfair of me to bring the Q&A and my perception of Hill into this review. That’s fine. Read someone else’s. My job is not to be “objective” or to provide some sort of consumer report guide. My job is to ruthlessly evaluate my own inherently subjective reaction to the film, and show my work. At the end of Mid90s, I was irked by its shallowness and self-indulgence, pondering Hill’s intentions. When his Q&A confirmed them, I upgraded to outright loathing his directorial debut.
Mid90s made its US Premiere at Fantastic Fest. It’ll hit theaters October 19.
Header Image Source: A24