It may seem initially a strange prospect for actor Jonah Hill, known for comedies like 'Superbad' (2007) and '21 Jump Street' (2012) to try his hand at writing and directing, until you consider the rather formidable directors he has worked with. When someone has worked with the likes of Bennett Miller, Martin Scorcese, the Coen Brothers, Cary Joji Fukunaga and Gus van Sant, it's logical that they should have picked up some sage advice and genuine inspiration along the way. In that sense, that Hill has turned his eye towards creating his own work makes a lot more sense, and explains the existence of 'mid90s', his writing and directorial debut. However, as with all debuts, especially someone transitioning from one discipline to another, there are two questions to ask: do they have the skills to be a proficient filmmaker, and do they have anything of note to say?
Set in LA in the mid 1990s, the film follows thirteen-year-old Stevie (Sunny Suljic, 'The Killing of a Sacred Deer'), who lives with his single mother Dabney (Katherine Waterston, 'Inherent Vice') and his troubled and violent older brother Ian (Lucas Hedges, 'Manchester By The Sea'). Like any young boy, Stevie is trying to find his niche in the world, especially one where he can escape physical abuse from Ian. The niche he finds is in a group of skaters, all older than him and led by Ray (Na-kel Smith), who take him under his wing and give him even a sketch of the family he lacks.
There's certainly something familiar about the premise of 'mid90s', and you definitely get the feeling of this being a story we've seen before. It doesn't help that it comes so soon after Greta Gerwig's masterpiece 'Lady Bird' or Bo Burnham's extraordinary 'Eighth Grade', and in the wake of Richard Linklater's monumental 'Boyhood'. It's important then for Hill to find his own voice and establish his own style, but while there is a whiff of freshness to his approach to 'mid90s', it is a film very much built on the influence of others. It ends up being more fascinating as a technical achievement, Hill and cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt emulating the visual and textural style of independent American cinema of that period, shooting on 16mm and in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio. The film looks very much like a skater film from the 90s, even down to the blocky framing and haphazard editing. At its worst, it's a decision that burdens the film with a crippling sense of nostalgia, but at its best it's a surprisingly dynamic and often beautiful visual language, perfectly capturing a fleeting sense of that period. There's also a strict commitment to recreating the look of the era, so much so that it really did take me back to that period in the mid 90s, its music and fashion and sounds and tastes. Hill does seem a little too focused on the era rather than the narrative, and never makes it shimmer in the same way that Gerwig did in 'Lady Bird', but it has its moments.
The screenplay is a similarly mixed affair. You can see the influences of van Sant in how it reaches towards an anti-narrative structure, mostly consisting of a series of episodes in Stevie's exploration of himself and who he might be, but Hill puts on the breaks just before fully embracing the anti-narrative sentiment, filling the film with almost too much conflict, some of it sincere and some of it unnecessary. Much like with the filmmaking, the screenplay has a meandering quality. It doesn't quite know what it wants to be, and apart from Stevie, never really commits to exploring the complex inner life of its characters. That said, there are moments of unexpected honesty in 'mid90s' that take you by surprise, especially in how it explores the lonely abyss of being a teenage boy.
Stevie is so badly trying to find the kind of man he wants to be, first by coveting Ian, desperate to reach his brother despite Ian's violence towards him, and then revelling in skate culture with the dangerous abandon of a child playing in the world of adults. All of the young men in 'mid90s' are trying with frightening desperation to become adults as quickly as possible, and the tragedy of the film is that they do so in order to take some semblance of control over their lives that circumstance or parental influence have spun dangerously out of control. When control is taken away from them, they respond with all-consuming destruction, whether it be Stevie exploding with pained fury at Dabney, fellow skater Fuckshit (Olan Prenatt) drinking himself into oblivion, or Ian pummelling Stevie until both his brothers soul and his own soul breaks apart. 'mid90s' may have many flaws and never totally find its feet, but it still manages to be a heartbreaking portrait of the existential nightmare of being a young man, when you are being pulled apart by expectations from yourself and others, when everyone is telling you what you should and shouldn't be but never helping you find what you want to be, and when the world around you has never given you the voice to be able to say that you are hurting inside, that you are lost and alone and don't know what to do. Stevie's journey is a search for meaning from a mind not old enough to process his experiences and understand consequences, whether that be the physical ones of drugs and alcohol and smoking, or the emotional ones of turning to the world and raging against it.
It's more of a sketch of a film than a fully-fledged feature, too erratic in its craft and storytelling and lacking in its characterisation.
'mid90s' never would have worked without a strong actor taking on Stevie, and if there is one slam-dunk for this film, it's the performance from Sunny Suljic. He carries the film on his shoulders with such strength and confidence, but the degree of vulnerability he demonstrates is often staggering. He is so small and so genuine, and every hit he takes you feel right in your gut. His performance is shockingly mature, heartbreakingly innocent and superbly crafted. As Ian and Dabney, Lucas Hedges and Katherine Waterston don't fare as well, though this is mostly due to how underwritten and obvious their characters are. There is something deeply unsettling seeing Hedges, often so delicate and heartfelt, become such an unchecked ball of rage, but seeing Waterston in yet another thankless role and once again not being able to tap into the great promise she showed in 'Inherent Vice' is frustrating. The rest of the cast is made up of young newcomers, and all of Stevie's skater friends (Na-kel Smith, Olan Prenatt, Gio Galicia and Ryder McLaughlin) make up for their lack of craft with their immediacy and honesty, and the chemistry between them and Suljic is really lovely to watch.
We're so used to barnstorming debuts from unexpected artists of late (not only Gerwig and Burnham, but Boots Riley with 'Sorry to Bother You' and Jordan Peele) that it's a touch disappointing how much Jonah Hill doesn't quite hit the mark with 'mid90s'. It's more of a sketch of a film than a fully-fledged feature, too erratic in its craft and storytelling and lacking in its characterisation. In that sense, the answer to whether he has the skills to be a proficient filmmaker is that he has a long way to go, but its certainly something worth pursuing. With the second question, he certainly has something to say as a filmmaker, this film has an undercurrent of deep sadness that, when it surfaces, make for the stronger moments of the film. Hopefully as Hill continues to develop his skills as a filmmaker, his voice will become all the clearer and all the more potent.