Every year we get another set of established actors making the transition to directing. While it can no longer be seen as a rare occurrence, the scale of that challenge should not be underestimated. Of all the current crop of household names however, something about hearing “Jonah Hill, writer/director” just seems right.
That feeling translates to the screen and Mid90s is a clear sign of Hill’s confidence in standing behind the camera. Opting to shoot in 16mm and using a narrow 4:3 aspect ratio, his methods are not conventional or studio-friendly, but they pay off with an oozing sense of 90s nostalgia, crafted by the frame as well as the images it holds and the endlessly brilliant collection of songs in its hip-hop heavy soundtrack.
Following Stevie (Sunny Suljic), a 13 year-old boy who falls into an older crew of skateboarders, you can sense this is a very personal film for the debutant director. That passion is perhaps the driving factor in its greatest strength – authenticity. Very rarely is teenage life captured so naturally on screen. The conversations of teenage boys are often uneducated, ignorant and even bigoted. That’s the nature of teenage boys and, especially in the 90s, words like ‘gay’ and ‘retard’ are banded out as insults on a regular basis.
Hill is absolutely right to include those conversational traits. He does not use them gratuitously or play them for cheap laughs. It is completely authentic. Ugly and uncomfortable but, ultimately, real.
In pursuit of that truth he saw fit to cast largely non-professional actors around his 13 year-old lead. Another bold decision and another correct one. They help ground the film in reality while bringing a surprisingly tangible pathos to screen. Young, disadvantaged teens looking for happiness, it’s a pretty flawed group of people, but one that is hard not to sympathise with.
Coming in at a pleasantly short 85 minutes, it is a charming portrayal of youth and friendship. From the twisted power dynamics and often tribal nature of a teenage friend group, to the introduction of new feelings, experiences and vices, Mid90s feels endlessly relatable.
The film, like Stevie on his skateboard, does not always land on its feet. As well as a few glaring (albeit forgivable) logical mishaps, it doesn’t quite feel complete and, when the credits roll, you can’t help but feel the ending somewhat distracts from the powerful message at the core of the movie.
Still, Jonah Hill is now an attractive addition to a project both on screen and off it. Fuelled by a lifetime desire to become a filmmaker and, having clearly studied the likes of Martin Scorsese and the Coens when acting for them, he has delivered an endearing, authentic look at teenagehood in 90s America, marking himself as a very assured figure in the director’s chair.
See Mid90s at Showroom Cinema from tomorrow, 12 April, kicking off with a special opening night takeover with Slugger Skate Store & The House Skate Park. Catch a selection of skate films from local skaters before the 8.45 screening & join them for a pop-up in the bar.
Image credit: Movie DB