Mid 90s

Comic and dramatic actor Jonah Hill’s Mid90s is his debut as a writer and director, a depiction of a deeply troubled childhood amidst the Clinton era.  While a young cast performs well enough, there’s little here to suggest Hill learned anything while working for pros like Martin Scorsese, Gus Van Sant, or the Coen brothers. In fact, good luck even remembering this movie a week later.

Sunny Suljic is impressive playing Stevie, a sweet young boy who is viciously abused by his older brother and falls in with a crew of skaters, whose influence on him is especially negative. While the leader of the crew (well played by Na-Kel Smith) has a big brother-like relationship with Stevie, the others mostly allow their drinking and skating lifestyles to wash over him.

Hill’s talent as a character actor continues to impress, as he’s racked up two Oscar nominations in recent years for Moneyball and The Wolf of Wall Street. Behind the camera, he’s clearly enamored with recreating a lost decade but shows little finesse of any kind as a filmmaker. If anything, Mid90s demonstrates how Hill saw Kids and every other awful Larry Clark and Harmony Korine flick like the rest of us. This is Kids-lite, a facsimile of down and dirty indie filmmaking that doesn’t have a voice or a clear point to make.

As far as sporting a 90’s identity, Stevie has Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles bed sheets, wears a “Ren and Stimpy” t-shirt and listens to music on a Walkman. A stronger connection is how this is plays like one of those off-putting, star-driven bummers from that decade, like Joe The King or Niagra, Niagra, that no one ever watches more than once, tops. This could have been set in any year, as the details of Stevie’s life are overly familiar and unsurprising.

As a portrait of poor kids acting out and exploring the possibilities rebellion, away from the view of their parents, the recent The Florida Project does all of this so much better. Some of the skating stunts are impressive but there’s little here that you can’t find in a halfway decent YouTube video. One of the best scenes involves Stevie’s losing his virginity at a party: the build-up and result of the scene feels genuine. The most authentic sequence overall is the short film-within-the-film that plays before the end credits, which has an energy the rest lacks.

There’s an onslaught of racist and homophobic slurs, a distancing approach that doesn’t automatically equate to historic accuracy. In addition to the non-stop ugliness, the dialog is banal and none of the characters are fully formed. It doesn’t mean anything that Stevie betrays his mother’s trust, as the character is, at best, barely established.

Despite Hill’s already impressive body of work, this is a misstep, though a minor one. Mid90smakes so little an impression, Hill can either embrace a potential cult following or permanently push it under a rug and forget about it. It’s that kind of risk-free enterprise, a passionless pet project. I suspect many scenes were improvised (as many feel made up on the spot) and that either Stevie or his awful brother have autobiographical elements from Hill’s life. Unfortunately, Mid90s is so poorly held together, I could care less how much of it really happened.

This is a favor movie, the kind of low budget drama that, despite the no-frills filmmaking, is loaded with expensive period music. There’s also the visual nods to Hill’s former collaborators, as characters are seen viewing Goodfellas (a tribute to Hill’s The Wolf of Wall Street director), adorning a Leonardo DiCaprio poster (Hill’s ode to his famous co-star) and even listening to Ginuwine’s “Pony” (a likely shout out to frequent collaborator Channing Tatum). Then there’s Katherine Waterston and Lucas Hedges, both exceptional, up-and-coming performers who give this credibility, in roles that won’t do anything to further their careers. For all the favors Hill called in, I feel like the biggest, unwarranted favor he asks is of his audience: Why would anyone see this, let alone sit through it? I’ve seen worse films this year but this one had me begging for its 85-minute running time to mercifully end.

One and a Half Stars

originally published in Maui Time Weekly