Jonah Hill’s career has been nothing if not dynamic. In 2007, he broke onto the scene with “Superbad,” a high-school screwball comedy that’s still mentioned as the gold-standard for the genre post-2000. Hill’s performance as the boisterous, awkward and overweight Seth would prove both a blessing and a curse, launching him to stardom but pigeonholing him as “The Fat Guy” in Hollywood.
“I became famous in my late teens and then spent most of my young adult life listening to people say that I was fat and gross and unattractive,” Hill writes in an A24 program given to audiences at “Mid90s” early screenings. “It’s only in the last four years, writing and directing my movie “Mid90s,” that I’ve started to understand how much that hurt and got into my head.”
Clearly, “Mid90s” was a watershed moment for Hill, a creative expression of self-discovery both as a child and again as a young adult artist. This is unequivocally the film’s greatest strength; from the opening credits to the final shot, it’s clear that Hill has poured his soul into this piece. The film tells the story of Stevie (Sunny Suljic, “The Killing of a Sacred Deer”), a 13-year-old who finds an escape from his turbulent home life with a group of high school skateboarders. As the guys grow closer, each reveals the unique struggles and triumphs of their day-to-day lives.
While it certainly has some engaging character moments, “Mid90s” works best as a film that’s less about any one character and more about telling the story of an era and a niche culture within it. Hill, both a hip hop and skating fanatic, brings awe-inspiring meticulousness to the world he depicts, evoking details too small, too personal to be anything but autobiographical. Nevertheless, these moments never fall short of relatability, and it’s that ability to relate the trials and tribulations of a small community to the collective childhoods of a national audience. I’ve never owned a skateboard, and I was born in the tail end of the ’90s, and yet Stevie’s life — his rituals, his enthusiasm, his wide-eyed awe at his role models — felt at once uncanny and familiar.
This ability to transport the viewer is Hill’s crowning achievement, and the film is at its best when it focuses more on this labor-of-love nostalgia and less on dramatic tension. Unfortunately, the story that accompanies this is filled with ups and downs. By the film’s conclusion, the only character arc that feels as if it’s truly been completed is the subplot about Stevie and his abusive older brother Ian (Lucas Hedges, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”). Na-Kel Smith brings some heart to the film as Ray, a seemingly aloof but kind-hearted cool guy, and offers a handful of poignant moments as the group’s resident philosopher-type. In the end, though, the film bites off more than it can chew in its scant 84-minute runtime and at least half of its many subplots stumble to conclusions that feel more like a shrug.
And we need to talk about that scene. If you’ve seen the film, you probably know the one I’m referring to, but if not, be warned: Slight spoilers ahead. There’s a sequence about halfway through the movie where the guys bring Stevie to a party. On the bus ride there, some of the guys pop adderall and Stevie, wanting to fit in, does the same. At the party, Stevie drinks an entire bottle of malt liquor and smokes weed with his friends. Now a veritable cocktail of substances, he’s approached by Estee (Alexa Demie, “Brigsby Bear”), a high school girl who’s presumably 17 like the rest of the crew. Their conversation turns to flirting which turns to Estee leading Stevie to a bedroom, and, well, let’s just say it doesn’t stop there.
Let’s not mince words — this is predatory. Estee is only four years older than Stevie, but make no mistake: She’s a grown woman, and his voice hasn’t dropped yet. If that weren’t bad enough, he’s so drugged up that he can’t possibly consent to what is happening. So why does the film portray this hookup as a victory and then never address it again? There’s really no good answer, and were gender-roles reversed here (an older, sober guy hooking up with a wasted prepubescent girl) this scene would be sparking outrage. It’s not inherently wrong to portray these types of encounters in cinema, but to do so with such a brazen “high-five bro!” attitude is a head-scratching lapse of judgement from a filmmaker who has otherwise proven himself to be incredibly savvy and in-touch. Unfortunately, these thoughts lingered with me for the remainder of the film’s runtime.
While far from perfect and, at brief moments, concerningly ignorant in its messaging, “Mid90s” should serve as a decent addition to the ever-growing A24 “coming of age” lineup. What it does well it does really well, and what it does poorly, well, you know. Nevertheless, the experience remains a net-positive, and if nothing else serves as a promising beginning for Hill’s directing career. Much like the era it portrays, “Mid90s” has some good times and some not-so-good times, but ultimately carries enough charm and heart to be worth it in the end.