Nostalgia is hot right now. As the old millennials like yours truly come of age, the cultures of the 80s and 90s grow into an increased focus. We all want to remember our Matchbox 20 and our Mallrats, don’t we? However, questions of historical narratives also begin enter into the conversation. When are we looking at the culture of our youth through rose colored glasses, and when does it become problematic? Just look at something like Song of the South! Well, in Jonah Hill’s directorial debut, Mid90s, the micro-budget indie runs pass problematic and settles straight into troubling territory.
Mid90s follows Stevie (Sunny Suljic) a young boy growing up in California during the… Mid90s. He lives with his single mother (Katherine Waterston) and his… brother (?) Ian (Lucas Hedges). However Stevie grows increasingly isolated from his family as he gets more involved in the local skateboarding culture. Jonah Hill directs the film from his own script.
Questions of nostalgia in films are tricky. Sometimes it hits. Sometimes it doesn’t. Ultimately, this movie isn’t made for women, who in this story are reduced to being “b*tches”, “p*ssy” and “h*’s”. While there are female characters in this narrative, none are named and do little more than deliver plot exposition (or sleep with Stevie). Yes, you read that right. Feel free to make arguments about historical accuracy and the role of women in this particular culture. However, this treatment of women shouldn’t be celebrated as nostalgia, especially in a Hollywood era when female filmmakers still must fight and struggle for each and every chance they get. This is not something we need right now, nostalgia or not.
In fact, the film is in celebration of a toxic masculinity that the contemporary #MeToo movement is currently taking a stand against. Mid90s features a sex scene between Stevie and an unnamed female character (Alexa Demie) at a party. While the sequence is cut in such a way to not be triggering, and hopefully protecting the THIRTEEN YEAR OLD lead actor, within the scope of the narrative it is still celebrated. This is constructed as a coming into manhood for Stevie. Suljic is playing younger than the actor’s thirteen years, and while the movie doesn’t bother to develop the female character, she is most certainly older than he is… old enough to know better. Women are not sex objects, and in an industry struggling with questions of harassment and exploitation (of both genders) at this point in history, the scene is troubling to say the least.
Mid90s wants to pull at some interesting threads in an examination of juveniles in the titular era and the role of class in this society. However, you need characters and a script to make a narrative point. This film has neither, short of a respectable performance by Suljic. Waterston in particular is wasted in a story which needs her character, Stevie’s young, single mother to make a narrative point. She’s not only a female presence in the feature, but also brings potential for some powerful emotional beats. The script hints to some not nice boyfriends and potentially prostitution, but her character never even speaks for herself. Instead, Stevie and Ian (Hedges) speak about her. The script seems completely content not giving her a name, calling her a “b*tch”, and largely forcing her into the background.
Lucas Hedges is wasted much in the same way as Waterston. With the incredibly powerful work the young actor has been doing in the last two years, how do you waste him? Is it even possible? Mid90s finds a way. Hedges is doing his darnedest to inject any character he can into the flat husk that script provides him, but there’s very little to work with. As a result, the disconnect between the script and the characters feels like a massive divide. Ian is visibly struggling with something in his life, but once again it’s a struggle to get a name, let alone anything resembling development on this character.
The same feels true with Stevie’s group of friends. The story is absolutely fascinated with “F*ckshit” (Olan Prenatt). While the youngster is good in the role, there is more going on with these characters. This movie could do with a lot less of the boyish mischief (read: drinking, sex, drugs) and more emphasis on who these boys are. At one point Ray (Na-Kel Smith) tells Stevie that the other boys have their problems. There is abuse, poverty and learning struggles all running rampant within the group. However, Mid90s needs to show us this to carry any emotional weight at all. Show. Don’t tell. Rather, the script feels mired in characters who are simply performative. While this could lead to an interesting examination of a character and social pressures they all struggle with, but it falls flat if you don’t see the individual behind the facade.
Aesthetically, Mid90s is packed with flourishes which bring no added substance to the story with little separating this from what you’d see coming from a mid-level film student with a nice budget. The team makes a questionable decision to play with the aspect ratio. While the trick makes a cutesy attempt to make the aesthetic feel “vintage”, it makes absolutely no sense due to it being showcased on movie screens. If this were opening on Netflix, this might work, as the poorly constructed frame wouldn’t be as glaring on a television screen as it feels in a theater.
Ultimately, the biggest draw of Mid90s is for skater-culture, as well as likely a very niche demographic for late 80s and early 90s kids who the material might speak to. However, aside from this, the film doesn’t say anything which hasn’t been said far better in a number of other stories. Visually, narratively and stylistically, there are much better movies out there. Unless you’re looking forward to this one, skip this till it’s streaming.
Mid90s opens in theaters around the country this week.