The Toronto International Film Festival welcomed a surprisingly large number of first features from actors this year: Bradley Cooper’s prestigious A Star Is Born remake, Paul Dano’s subdued Wildlife, Annihilation team-player Tuva Novotny’s formally bold Blind Spot, Max Minghella’s Teen Spirit (going behind the camera like his father Anthony) and Jonah Hill’s Mid90s all carried with them expectations and doubts. Star indie producer A24 helped Hill on his project, however, which suggested a film that would be at least a little personal, and a little different.
Mid90s may be a title to give you vertigo from premature nostalgia, but it certainly matches the film. Hill follows Stevie (Sunny Suljic, excellent), a 13-year-old boy living in Los Angeles in that time period, and taking in all its particular pop culture artefacts. Although he’s not supposed to, Stevie sneaks into his big brother Ian’s (Lucas Hedges) bedroom to admire all his stuff, from his collection of rap albums to his delicately stored, immaculate sneakers. Hill makes the little boy a fly on the wall and a surrogate for himself and today’s melancholy audience. The 16mm camera tracks along the shelves, up close, while music begins to take over the soundtrack and won’t stop much for the rest of the movie. Mid90s is a tribute to a specific time and place, through the eyes of a fan, and a passionate child.
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This observer position continues unto the streets and into the skate shop where Stevie likes to hang out and observe the cooler, older kids: Ray (Na-kel Smith), Fuckshit (Olan Prenatt), the younger Ruben (Gio Galicia) and Fourth Grade (Ryder McLaughlin), the white boy of the group. Having a young and white character as his eye allows Hill to present a social commentary that is at once childish and surprisingly piercing and sincere. The boys — most of which are just reaching 16 — are too young to know better than to ask “do black people get sunburnt?,” except to each other. Their naive but genuine curiosity (and their trust amongst themselves) make for arresting but hilarious moments of politically incorrect conversations that never get gross. The influence of Larry Clark’s 1995 cult film Kids may be all over Mid90s, but Hill has a more tender and perhaps more realistic approach of his young subjects: they are smart enough to know when they’re going too far.
Stevie doesn’t talk much, but by being serviciable to his idols, he soon joins the group for skating expeditions (after having practiced hard at home, falling countless times on his knees to make a successful jump). The plot of Mid90s isn’t its greatest asset, but as coming of age narratives go, Stevie’s journey is pleasantly rich in emotions and discoveries. A rivalry with Ruben brings up questions of masculinity, and when he advises Stevie not to thank people because “they’re gonna think you’re gay,” Ruben means it. He, too, had to travel the path to social acceptance and had to figure out the rules and codes of the popular kids. But Stevie, as hard as he may try to fit in, remains strange to his new friends and makes them all reconsider their habits.
Not only does Hill focus on a specific era, he also gives time itself a crucial part in his film, both formally and narratively. When Stevie and Ian play video games, slouching on the couch, the camera slowly zooms in on them, emphasising how they could — and they will — spend hours and hours with their console. But that device, too, allows for a specific type of interaction, unique to the video game culture of that time: sitting together but with their eyes fixed on the television, Stevie and Ian can talk quietly and comfortably, never having to make eye contact.
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The reason why the brothers can’t have a normal conversation is unclear, yet typical: Ian is a lonely, angry young adult, embarrassed by his loving single mother (Katherine Waterston) and annoyed by his admirative brother. His violence towards Stevie, however, is shocking and truly unusual in cinema (and in life). Hedges, in a role far from the proper boys he played in Manchester by the Sea, Lady Bird or Boy Erased (also at TIFF), gives Ian a mysterious but heartbreaking impression of deep trauma — a feeling that reaches Stevie, too. Hill has a sense for the ways in which human contact can be transformative for children, and Stevie screaming at his mother, as disturbing as it is, seems like the logical result of his own harassment. At this crucial age, Stevie’s friends too are constantly on the brink of falling for negative influences, and they contemplate their future with anxiety. Setting his film in the not-so-distant past and having kids wonder about what is, essentially, our current epoch, Hill generates an uneasy feeling of uncertainty that rings true to both the teenage experience and the end of the last century.
Where Mid90s fails to land back on its wheels is in its conclusion, which feels like a studio-imposed recourse to conflict to give the film shape. Perhaps, as first-time directors tend to do, Hill wanted to address too many topics with his directorial debut and didn’t quite find a way to tie them all together into a thicker story. The work he created nevertheless feels remarkably personal, and has its director’s cheerful and down-to-earth personality. It could have done without a few bumps in the road, but Mid90s breezes through pleasantly.
Manuela Lazic (@ManiLazic) is a French film critic based in London, UK. She regularly contributes to The Ringer, Little White Lies Magazine and SPARK. Her work has also appeared at The Film Stage and the BFI, among other publications.