Where films like this year’s poignant Eighth Grade do a perfect job of creating a universally relatable experience full of empathy, there are films like Mid90s that meticulously capture a moment in time, but only for a specific demographic. That doesn’t make either depiction less genuine, but it does make one of them much more niche. Having grown up in the 90’s, Mid90s, for better or worse, encapsulates the feel and mindset of that time period.
Skate culture is a topic that 2018 has covered from multiple viewpoints. In the amazing documentary, Minding the Gap, we see how skateboarding becomes a coping mechanism for shared trauma among boys. Skate Kitchen took the topic and showed us the rarely seen side that is female skateboarding, and how timely it is when seen from this gender’s perspective. Both films deal with coming-of-age within the culture and creating lasting friendships, but where they really excel is in delivering a timely social message reminding us why this is important. Mid90s does most of the same but instead turns the lesson into a historical one that is full of insight regarding the men of today.
Jonah Hill makes his directorial debut at full speed with a clear as Crystal Pepsi vision that he never dares stray away from. Even without the film’s title telling you the time period, Hill does everything in his power to make sure you never forget when this film takes place. Whether it’s something as subtle as set pieces like the music or video games, or things as blatant as the 16mm film it was shot on, there is irrefutable authenticity gained from every decision. All of this gives the film a visual warmness to it, like putting in a VHS of home movies from when you were a child. In this case, the memories may not be all that pleasant ones, but at least they accurately captured your life at that point in time.
Mid90s follows the coming-of-age journey of Stevie (Sunny Suljic) as he traverses the turbulent and terrible waters of boyhood. Hill pens this screenplay, infusing his own experiences and humor into the film. That means that most of the jokes either involve something about sex and sexuality, something with substances like drugs and alcohol, or something relating to skateboarding. The humor is repugnant, filled with jokes about rape, race, and homophobia and the sheer amount of times that a certain slur is used would be enough to turn anyone off from finishing, let alone starting the film. The word itself, along with many of the other topics discussed, is completely problematic in a film made in 2018, but when they become acceptable is when used in the context of the film’s time period.
I remember being one of those asshole kids that joined in on those kinds of jokes and threw the f-word with wild abandon, probably twice as much as most so as to try to hide the fact that I was gay. Thinking back on how insensitive and ignorant I was back then still fills me with shame, and maybe that’s the point. Hill shows how politically incorrect these boys are as a way to examine why the men of today are still so problematic. Yes, the strong bond of friendship shown in the film is beautiful, but the peer pressure and toxic masculinity perpetuated within it are the real causes for concern. This false machismo that every boy feels they need to take on turns impressionable boys into insecure men, spouting homophobic slurs and treating women as nothing more than sex objects there for their amusement. You can see an almost direct correlation between the perpetuation of this “boys will be boys” mentality from the 90’s (that still exists today), and the type of men it has helped to breed.
The almost ballet-like skate sequences and beautiful Trent Reznor/Atticus Ross score bring a nostalgic beauty to an otherwise dark tale about coming of age too fast. Hill creates an homage to an especially formative point in his life but also makes sure that the mirror he holds up to the past accurately reflects how problematic it was then and still is today. Hill’s perfect recreation of the 90’s aesthetic shows his great promise as a director, but it is hard to gauge true potential when your artistic vision is little more than imitation or homage.