Director: Jonah Hill
Writer: Jonah Hill
Cinematographer: Christopher Blauvelt
Producer: Scott Rudin, Eli Bush, Ken Kao, Jonah Hill, Lila Yacoub, and Mikey Alfred
On Howard Stern’s radio show, Jonah Hill discussed how he met with Martin Scorsese in preparation for the movie, as it’s one of his favorite directors that he of course worked on developing one Hill’s greatest roles in Wolf of Wall Street (2013). Having worked with Bennett Miller in Moneyball, the Coens Brothers on Hail, Caesar! (2016) and appearing, at times, starring in most of Judd Apatow’s most popular films, Hill said that Scorsese remains the greatest director he ever worked with and the filmmaker he most admires. Stern asked why and Hill mentioned Scorsese’s incredible talent in to solve problems with lightning speed; which for those unfamiliar with directing, is one of the primary positions of a director - things aren’t how you envision them, Murphy’s Law operates at full force, and with so many people and a lot of money riding on your shoulders, it’s being able to handle that pressure while also delivering an excellent final product.
Scorsese met with Jonah Hill for over four hours in order to discuss Hill’s directorial debut; breaking down the characters, talking about an approach to shooting the story, and essentially offering a master class that leaves you wishing that Hill might have recorded the conversation.
From the get go, Mid90s looks like a film from the era. According to IMDb trivia, the projectionist thought that they were screening an uncovered film from the 90s, as between the lighting, super 16mm format, and 4:3 ratio, it embodies the era’s essence.
The film takes place in Los Angeles, focused primarily on a 13-year old boy named Stevie (Sunny Suljic) who lives with his orange juice-loving brother Ian (Lucas Hedges in a possible Swingers (1996) throwback) and his single mom who seems to have an endless string of men staying over throughout the week. Like any big brother, Ian likes to beat up Stevie, enforcing a strict policy of Stevie never entering his room. In one of the earliest scenes, Stevie ignores the rule, looking through his CD collection, writing down the artists, touching Ian’s cool clothes and shoes, perusing the skating and music magazines neatly stacked on the nightstand.
While out with his mom, he sees some kids skateboarding outside a skate shop, busting each other’s balls, harassing the people passing by; looking like they’re having the time of their lives. Stevie heads home and finds Ian’s old 80s skateboard, bargaining with him and then taking it back to the shop where he hangs out awkwardly, watching as the three friends banter about girls, parents, etc. They’re comprised of two true life skateboarders who given incredible performances - Ray (Na-Kel Smith) and “Fuck Shit” (Olan Prenatt). Ray’s skill is getting some eyeballs from some sponsored talent while Olan Prenatt has been redirecting his passion from skating and into booze and weed.
The third leg of their trio is Ruben (Gio Galicia ) is one of the film’s best constructed characters; serving as the most recent addition into the group, quiet and grossly insecure, excited for Stevie to join so he can have someone to boss around, and jealous when Fuck Shit and Ray take a liking to the guy. Trying desperately to look cool, Ruben smokes, and soon gives Stevie his first cigarette; to which Stevie says “thanks” and Ruben shuns him for being a “faggot” as only gay people ever say thanks.
Stevie earns his place when the three are on a rooftop at a school, filming a video of Ray and Fuck Shit hopping over the gap, at risk of falling below. As Stevie has just learned to ollie, he attempts to go for the gold, heading down without enough speed, failing to make the jump and falling upon a lunch table below and knocking himself out. They take him back to the skate shop where Ray gives Stevie his old board. Stevie thanks Ray, and quickly apologizes, forgetting that he shouldn't say such a thing. Ray asks why he apologizes, criticizing the idea that giving thanks is in any way a bad thing.
Soon Stevie joins them at a small house party, where he moves on from cigarettes to beer and weed, soon meeting a girl about five years older than him who he has sex with. From there the four start taking pills and drinking during the day, finding the best spots to session where dozens of skaters gather around, popping off tricks, hanging out, drinking, smoking until the cops come to break it all up.
When Stevie comes home wasted one evening, Ian confronts him and so begins another fight, though this time Stevie gains the upper hand, belittling Ian for having no friends. It wakes their mom, who tells Stevie he can no longer hang with the others. Stevie explodes, disobeying her and heads off to the skate shop where he finds Ray who explains that things might be bad, but they’re worse for most everyone else - Fourth Grade is the poorest person he knows, Ruben’s mom is drug addict, Fuck Shit is falling victim to drugs and alcohol, and Ray himself had lost his brother in a car accident.
Later, they host a party in the back of the skate shop, where a couple of professionals approach Ray. A fucked up and jealous Fuck Shit then comes up to sabotage Ray’s chances, and just moments later Stevie and Ray go at it. With everyone drunk and high and pissed, Fuck Shit still wants to party; offering to drive to the next place. Knowing the only way to clear the air up is to keep the party going, Ray encourages them all to get in and in a fairly brilliant car crash scene, a drunk Fuck Shit gets into an accident, landing Stevie in the hospital. His mom arrives at the hospital to find all of them asleep; there for their friend.
I had no idea what to expect from this film, other than feeling a bit envious as I’ve had a similar idea for a movie about a bunch of kids from my hometown who started a BMX riding crew. It was composed of some of the funniest people I’ve ever met; the kind that no one could outwit or bullshit or ball bust; possessing the fiercest of Chicago sarcasm. One member in particular I idolized in a way that would probably sound weird other than to compare it directly to Stevie and Ray. He was a guy who was quiet and weird and completely respected because he was the very best; who’d fall hard and eat complete shit and get up without a sound, and most often a joke.
There’s something about coming of age stories and the way it puts the author’s heart on their sleeve which prevents most from ever achieving greatness. Mid90s is a good coming of age story, but there’s something that feels a bit too unfamiliar. Lucas Hedges plays the most honest character; completing fading into the role to the point where I forgot I was even watching him rather than another non-pro actor. His tough facade hiding his pain and frustration, and without ever seeing him beyond his family, we slowly piece together where he stands in the world. He’s a dork in beyond the home; what some might call a poser trying to find his place.
On the other hand, there’s a convenience with Stevie that seems a bit too much influenced by Harmony Korine and Larry Clark. The clearest example being Kids* (1995). I don’t doubt that people like Stevie have existed, as I imagine I know a few kids growing up that probably did what he did. And it’s not that Sunny Suljic is bad, as the performance is incredible. It’s that the character feels too simple; it’s too easy to figure out why he does what he does. He lives at home with a mom who sleeps around and is in need of companionship. I was left wondering who Stevie was before this, as being a lone kid with no friends who idolized his brother just didn’t match what he became.
A common story growing up is having a best friend and soon moving on. I’ve had a few moments in which one friend led to another, where either I changed or they did and soon the relationship faded out. Mentioning my own experience seems unfair, but I’m not sure where Stevie was before we meet him; as though it was more about getting to his moral corruption as fast as possible; which as a result played a bit too celebratory - he gets cool friends who now has his back, a new skateboard from his hero, loses his virginity to an older hot girl, smokes cigarettes and weed and drinks while skating throughout Los Angeles. The concluding lesson wasn’t about watching how far you go with your own mortality, but rather how good friends are hard to find. Then again, if I saw this film as a kid, maybe that’s exactly what would make it attractive; it wouldn’t be proselytizing a particular view, but rather celebrating the complete and utter carefree spirit of youth. Then again, for a directorial debut, it's impressive.
* Coincidentally, just a few years ago he made a French film called The Smell of Us (2014) which is, “The story centers around a group of self-destructive skateboarders in Paris”; he’s also has a made four films since Wassup Rockers (2005; another skateboard film, and the last I’ve seen).
BELOW: Great story
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