“Mid90s” is a cinematic ode to an era where teens smoked Marlboros on street corners, worshipped Michael Jordan like a god and found solace in skateboarding late into the night. As Jonah Hill’s directorial debut, one can only assume that “Mid90s” mirrors his childhood and is a portrait of a decade that’s looked back on with great nostalgia by a bunch of 30-somethings who wish more than anything that skating was still all the rage today.
There’s no questioning the accuracy of Hill’s painstaking recreation of the era, complete with a layer of film grain that gives the entire movie a retro feel. However, the film lacks a message. It says, “Hey, look! The ‘90s were great! We had drugs, booze, rock and skating — isn’t that enough of a compelling story for you?”
It isn’t enough for me.
The movie follows 13-year-old Stevie — played by Sunny Suljic — as he discovers skating and uses it as a means of escaping a more-than-troubling home life. Stevie is meant to represent the typical adolescent. He rejects any and all authority, is just starting to like girls, and is desperately searching for a place to belong. Oh, and his older brother physically beats him on a regular basis.
That’s one of my main issues with the film: I just don’t believe anything about Stevie’s circumstances. I don’t believe that Child Protective Services wouldn’t be called on Stevie’s brother, Ian (a poorly-written character played by the otherwise talented Lucas Hedges). I don’t believe that a troop of high schoolers would so quickly allow a 13-year-old into their ranks. I don’t believe that Stevie’s mom wouldn’t do more than just scold him when he comes home with a cracked skull, obtained from falling off a roof while attempting a dangerous skating trick.
The film’s worst offense, though, is that it fails to meaningfully develop its characters or really develop any semblance of a plot. The movie tries to shoehorn some drama in during its final 15 minutes or so, but at that point, the audience has no motivation to invest emotionally in what’s happening. As the credits rolled, I couldn’t help but think that the whole thing felt empty. It was a little too apathetic toward its characters while being a little too self-indulgent in its setting and its many references to ‘90s culture.
I don’t mean to be too harsh on “Mid90s.” As the film’s writer, Hill’s comedic talent shines through the funny script and had myself and the rest of the audience laughing often. The acting is genuine and fairly strong, despite the weak dramatic material behind it. The film is also edited quite well, and the original soundtrack is loyal to the sound of the era. Ultimately, though, “Mid90s” is wasted potential. It succeeds at capturing an era, but fails to tell a captivating story within its setting.