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Review: Mid90s

October 26, 2018

By John Corrado

★★★★ (out of 4)

Making his directorial debut, Jonah Hill has delivered one of the very best movies of the year with Mid90s, an incredibly enjoyable coming of age film that, like its title suggests, transports us back to the 1990s and captures the era perfectly.

The indie flick follows Stevie (Sunny Suljic), a shy 13-year-old in 1995 who is looking for a sense of belonging, which he isn’t getting at home with his single mother Dabney (Katherine Waterston) and physically abusive older brother Ian (Lucas Hedges), who pounds him every time he ventures into his room.

Desperate to be seen as cool, Stevie starts to hang out with an inner city Los Angeles skater crew that frequents the local Motor Avenue skateboard shop. He learns how to skate, and is taken under the wing of Ray (Na-kel Smith), the de facto leader of the group.

The group also includes the similarly aged Ruben (Gio Galicia), who we can sense has an even rougher home life than Stevie; the aptly named Fuckshit (Olan Prenatt), a moniker derived from the exclamation that he makes every time he nails a board trick; and Fourth Grade (Ryder McLaughlin), a young man so named for his learning disabilities who films everything on his trusty camcorder and dreams of making a movie. They hang out, go to parties, and generally get into trouble, with a sort of rough and tumble sense of camaraderie developing between them.

Having worked with a variety of great directors throughout his acting career, we can tell that Hill has learned from the best, and there are a myriad of cinematic influences felt throughout Mid90s. Shot on Super 16 film, and framed in a square 4:3 aspect ratio, one of the coolest things about the film is that it feels like something that could have actually been made on the fly by a young filmmaker during the burgeoning American independent film scene of the 1990s.

There is a guerrilla quality to the filmmaking here that recalls classic ’90s hangout films like Richard Linklater’s Slacker and Larry Clark’s Kids, and Hill captures the vibe of the era in a gritty and authentic way. These kids smoke, drink, talk about sex, and freely use homophobic slurs to belittle each other, and while this content will turn off some viewers, it also feels accurate to the era, and it’s understandable why Hill has chosen not to shy away from it in his perceptive and often very funny screenplay.

The film is carried by exceptional performances from its young cast, including a remarkable turn from Sunny Suljic in the lead, and equally memorable turns from all the members of the skate crew. Watch out for Na-Kel Smith in particular, who seriously deserves Best Supporting Actor consideration. He has a tender and touching scene near the end that will floor you, powerfully outlining the challenges faced by the different members of the group, and how skateboarding provides the only reprieve they have from the personal pain in their lives. Lucas Hedges also brings remarkable sensitivity to his role as a bully who lashes out violently but struggles to hide his own deep insecurities.

For 85 glorious minutes, Mid90s takes us on an appealing nostalgia trip that is by turns hilarious and surprisingly heartfelt, with never a wrong step or missed beat along the way. The film is exceptionally crafted and sublimely entertaining at the same time, and to top it all off, it’s set to a knockout soundtrack that mixes classic hip-hop songs from the era with an excellent new score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. It’s an instant classic, that feels like a lost gem from the ’90s.

A version of this review was originally published during the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival.

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