Jonah Hill never intended to be an actor. Since his childhood, he dreamt of becoming a director, but his brushes with Hollywood eventually led to his starring role in “Superbad”. The rest is history. He’s enjoyed an illustrious acting career over the past decade, working with the likes of Martin Scorsese and Gus Van Sant, but now he’s finally ready to step behind the camera. Hill’s started by writing what he knows: what it was like to be a kid in the “Mid90s”.
Hill’s directorial debut follows 13-year-old Stevie in sunny Los Angeles. Stevie’s home life is less than ideal: his brother is physically abusive, and his mother doesn’t know how to deal with his teenage turbulence. After coming across a group of older kids bantering in a skate shop, Stevie decides to take up skateboarding in hopes that he’ll move up the social ladder. The skaters recognize his effort and gladly take the young blood under their wing.
“Mid90s”—if the title hasn’t already given it away—is a bit of a period piece, and it’s not about to let you forget that. Early scenes are so chock full of 90s references that they’re almost laughable. They come off like the parodic flashbacks in “Bojack Horseman”, which comically feature characters spouting decade-specific references while signs of the time fly by in the background. “Mid90s” is a better period piece when it concentrates on its central group of friends.
Hill chose to shoot the movie in a 4:3 aspect ratio, which means the screen is more squarish than the wide banner that modern audiences are used to. Back before the 1950s, all movies were shot in 4:3 (or a similar aspect ratio) due to technical limitations, but nowadays some filmmakers return to it for artistic purposes. In “Mid90s”, the aspect ratio places emphasis on the characters: they’re nearly always centered in the frame. Whenever a character speaks, reacts, listens, or acts, they’re the film’s entire focus, filling the frame like a portrait. The movie is an art gallery of adolescent hopes, fears, vices, and insecurities. People are reflections of their context, so when Hill squares his skaters in front of the camera, we see the mid-90s bounce back through the lens.
During its first hour, “Mid90s” keeps the story simple, following Stevie and his friends as they meander through life on wheels. Their spirals into self-indulgence eventually involve sex, drugs, and violence, even at their young ages. The 1995 indie film “Kids” became infamous for its portrayal of kids engaging in such behavior—“Mid90s” is like “Kids” meets Linklater’s “Slacker”, in that it uses wandering, hedonistic protagonists to evoke a specific place at a specific time. Paired with a carefully curated soundtrack and a score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, the first hour of “Mid90s” swirls into a sublime dream and time machine.
When Hill’s screenplay introduces major conflict in the third act, though, the movie loses its momentum. There are small, interpersonal conflicts earlier in the movie that hint at characters’ suffering in subtle ways—notably Stevie’s skirmishes with his older brother, acted beautifully by Lucas Hedges—but the final act externalizes these hardships. Suddenly characters are moralizing out loud and the consequences of the kids’ actions hit them all at once. “Mid90s” seems to know that its finale is contrived, as it tries to swivel back to simple pleasures in its last moments, but the abrupt shift ends the movie on a jarring note.
The power of its first hour doesn’t fade, fortunately. “Mid90s” is a promising directorial debut for Jonah Hill and a great introduction to a host of young actors—especially lead actor Sunny Suljic and standout Na-kel Smith. If Hill can fine tune his next screenplay, he’s already proven that he has the direction to match.