“When you’re young, not much matters. When you find something that you care about, then that’s all you got.” – Telly, Kids, 1995, Larry Clark
The (paraphrased) quote uttered by Leo Fitzpatrick’s “virgin surgeon” Telly, in Larry Clark’s hormonally-driven teenage odyssey Kids, is an accurate line to refer to Jonah Hill’s directorial debut Mid90s. Clark’s film lays the groundwork in more than just pop profundity of theme, with both centring their tales around inner-city kids with a penchant for skateboarding. The fact that Harmony Korine, writer of the film Kids, appears briefly in a cameo, is a massive hint of where Hill’s influence lies.
There are moments within Hill’s film which borrow from Clark’s debut almost verbatim. Dialogue between Telly and his friend Casper (Justin Pierce) who remark that the virgins Telly has slept with will remember him when they’re old and grey is rebooted in Mid90s, with a group of girls making a similar remark after a sexual encounter between characters. Shortly afterwards, the Mid90s scene also seems to try and mimic the jaunty jump between that occurred in the faux-documentary segment of Kids, in which the boys and girls, separated by gender, share their feelings about sex. It’s a hark back which feels strange to watch, as the coming of age movie has become less regressive than Clark’s once explosive piece, and now 25 years on, Hill seems to want us to look back at the same things with a particular rose-tinted fondness.
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Nostalgia flows throughout Mid90s, in that almost slightly exaggerated way that only movies can do. In the beginning, lead character Stevie (Sunny Suljic) wraps himself in Turtle bedsheets, wears Street Fighter 2 tees and owns Hulk Hogan plushies. Even the film’s non-diegetic score is by Nine Inch Nails frontman Trent Reznor (along with Atticus Ross). Reznor may have been operating since the ’80s but with NIN’s most acclaimed works infiltrating suburban kids during the 90s it seems clear that Hill really wants the film drenched in the era he grew up in.
Stevie is a somewhat typical adolescent. Slightly estranged from his single mother (Katherine Waterston), and with one eye on his bullying brother as well as his video games. After becoming friends with some teenage skateboarder, Stevie, like Clark’s Telly, finds something he cares about: skateboarding. Suddenly his eagerness to please and ability to take bumps earn him brownie points with the coolest in the clique, because why would it not?
Of course, with a film like Mid90s which holds more narrative structure than Kids, we know where all this will be heading. Hill’s film is a coming of age feature like many others and in an age in which we’ve only recently had such head-turners such as Olivia Wilde’s Booksmart (2019) or Desiree Akhavan’s The Miseducation of Cameron Post (2018), which have reached out to more diverse identities, Hill’s throwback feels much like a young filmmaker simply retreading much of what’s been seen before but with characters who talk in his voice. Watching Hill’s breakthrough acting performance in Superbad (2008) and then listening to dialogue uttered by the teens here felt disarming.
However, Mid90s works consistently from scene to scene as Hill squeezes as much honesty and heart as he can from each performer. Mid90s doesn’t aim for controversy, nor does it give off the same poignancy that resides within the endless list of coming of age movies which have come before it. But it smacks every emotional beat as hard as Animal on the drums. It’s a simple coming of age tale about finding your groove. Stevie slowly discovers a sense of self with this gang of boarding misfits and it is enjoyable to follow him throughout the film. This is all wrapped up in some delicious, sun-kissed cinematography by Christopher Blauvelt which is tightly framed in 4:3 aspect ratio format. The ratio not only delivers nostalgic reference, reminding us how a lot of TV was viewed in the ’90s, it also boxes the characters in, particularly in close-ups and confining the emotional feelings of the characters in a way that’s difficult to pull away from.
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While some plot strands feel underdeveloped, the dialogue seems a little too interested in the N-word, and the nostalgia levels feel particularly high in the early stages, Hill’s assured direction of his solid young cast ensure that Mid90s never feels like forced or dull debut feature. It may take a little time before Jonah Hill can bring around the same free-wheeling style that a director like Richard Linklater can. However, a film like Mid90s is certainly a step in the right direction. Hill may be well known as an actor, but with his debut feature, he may have found something else that he cares about.