Offering us a heartfelt and assured exploration of 1990s youth subculture, Jonah Hill’s new film Mid90s is an objective view of the coming of age process. Here Hill reflects the pre-digital age of a changing 90s landscape, with a documentary-like precision, wrapping the audience in a claustrophobic 4:3 format, while taking us on a journey into the complex relationship between a peer group and a young teenager. Meanwhile, the film’s energetic soundtrack and handheld camera work echo the work of Gus Van Sant’s Paranoid Park in creating a realistic and engaging reflection of early adolescence that is genuinely captivating if at times unstructured.
During a long hot summer in 90s Los Angeles, we join 13-year-old Stevie (Sunny Suljic) as he finds belonging and acceptance among a group of older street skaters. Here we see Stevie escape the shadow of his aggressive and conflicted older brother Ian (Lucas Hedges) and his loving yet struggling single mum Dabney (Katherine Waterson). As Stevie’s bond with his new peer group increases, he finds himself taken on a journey of self-discovery. But all is not perfect, as Stevie navigates the pitfalls of his new friendships.
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Mid90s truly excels in its natural performances; Hill uses a largely unknown cast to create a sense of realism often missing in similar dramas. But it’s young Sunny Suljic who stands head and shoulders above the rest, with his outstanding debut performance as Stevie. Here Suljic not only embodies the joy and discovery of early teenage life, but he also balances this with anger, naive experimentation and a need to belong. Meanwhile, the peer group and family interface is delicately explored as Hill explores Stevie’s growing social confidence, burgeoning masculinity, and slow separation from family.
However, Mid90s struggles to fully define and explore Stevie’s relationship with his controlling and aggressive older brother (Hedges). Here the power and control shifts between our siblings as Stevie grows in confidence and builds an understanding of the family dynamics at play. But due to limited time, Hedges is never allowed the space to explore the flip side of the coin in defining his character and his motivations. But Mid90s finds a clear voice in the positives and negatives of peer influence, including the risks of troubled older young people acting as influencers to the young.
I do not doubt that the film’s use of casual homophobia and racism within the peer group will prove problematic to many watching. Still, it’s important to remember that this also reflects the period setting. Here the language used reflects the challenging landscape of masculinity in 1990s western cultures as young men struggled to define the expectations of men in society. However, there is a question mark over whether Mid90s does enough to explore these significant social issues. In my view, the answer is no, and this is not helped by a rushed conclusion that leaves the viewer feeling somewhat cheated.
However, despite these structural issues, Hill’s film is a powerful coming of age journey that feels unique and different to the plethora of movies surrounding it. Here Hill undoubtedly captures the fear, joy and naivety of early adult experiences with a natural brush, but Mid90s could also have achieved more.
Director: Jonah Hill