Jonah Hills directorial debut is a heartfelt exploration of 90s youth sub culture that provides an unvarnished view of coming of age. Reflecting its pre-digital period. Mid 90s feels almost autobiographical, mixing music, skateboarding culture and outstanding performances within a 4:3 frame. While reflecting the imperfect celluloid texture of the final decade of widespread physical film use.
This combination of styles create a beautiful sense of time and place alongside an energetic soundscape and handheld filming style that envelops the audience from the first scene. There are echoes of Gus Van Sant’s 2007 Paranoid Park mixed with Richard Linklater’s Boyhood and the lighter tones of Dazed and Confused. Offering a realistic and engaging reflection of early adolescence.
During a summer in 90s Los Angeles, 13 year old Stevie (Sunny Suljic) finds belonging and acceptance in a peer group of older skaters. Escaping the trappings of his abusive yet conflicted older brother Ian (Lucas Hedges) and tender yet struggling mother Dabney (Katherine Waterson). As Stevie’s bond to the group increases, he is taken on a journey of self discovery, family turmoil and friendship realities. Challenging the boundaries of his social and family structures.
Mid 90s excels in its natural performances, using its largely unknown cast to create realism in the emotional turmoil inherent in adolescence. Sunny Suljic gives an outstanding first performance as Stevie, portraying the joy, discovery and anger of his teenage character with ease. Reflecting back to the audience the deep emotional bonds of early peer acceptance and the naive excitement and all encompassing anger of youth.
The interface between the peer group and family is beautifully constructed, demonstrating the loss of family influence as Stevie grows in his social confidence. A confidence built on risk taking behaviours that embolden his sense of burgeoning masculinity.
Exploration of Stevie’s relationship with his controlling and domestically aggressive older brother (Hedges) changes as the realities of power and control shift; Stevie developing understanding of the family dynamics at play through his peer group. His brother battling his own control issues, as his younger sibling slowly slips through his fingers.
Mid 90s isn’t afraid to show the positives and negatives of peer influence, demonstrating the dangers of troubled youth acting as influencers, and the flip side of young male bonding in developing emotional support structures. The films use of casual homophobia and racism within the peer group reflects the period, and while some may justifiably struggle with this in a modern context. The language demonstrates the challenges of developing masculinity in 1990s western cultures; torn between changing expectations in the role of men and the cultural and sexual barriers of perceived masculinity.
There are weaknesses in the films structure, particularly in its final scenes. Endings feel slightly rushed and void of the tension that proceeded them. There is also an absence of exploration in the sibling dynamics within the films conclusion. Never allowing the audience inside the conflicted but changed brotherly relationship. However, these minor structural issues do not distract from the overall narrative, in a film that reflects the coming of age journey with sincerity and energy in equal measure.
For those familiar with Johah Hills acting work and previous script writing, Mid 90s will prove challenging and uniquely different. This is an assured directorial debut of highly engaging indie filmmaking and proves the depth of creativity and artistic style of Hill.
Mid 90s is a beautiful exploration of early adolescence. Encapsulating the fear, joy and naivety of early adult experiences with an unvarnished brush. The interface between peer groups and family is delivered with sincerity and dynamism with a visual aesthetic that encapsulates 1990s youth culture
Director: Jonah Hill