Plain, Simple Tom reviews . . . “Mid90s” (2018)

In writer/director Jonah Hill’s filmmaking debut, Sunny Suljic stars as Stevie, a young boy living in Los Angeles in the 1990s with his mother Dabney (Katherine Waterston) and bullying older brother Ian (Lucas Hedges); looking to get away from his troubled home life, he soon becomes friends with a group of older, skater boys and as he is ingratiated into the gang, Stevie, soon nicknamed “Sunburn”, begins to imitate their behaviour, getting involved in alcohol, drugs, sex and dangerous stunts, while divisions and hostilities soon arise within the small group of friends, as well as at home.

In all honesty, I don’t think that I expected much from this film, anticipating a solid directorial debut that showed potential but which couldn’t exactly compete with all the other new releases from this year, but to my amazement, I found Mid90s to be an astounding piece of filmmaking – a beautiful and thoroughly absorbing experience that very successfully creates a “’90s atmosphere” and which tells an affecting story that features a small group of very well written and compelling characters.

First of all, Mid90s certainly looks like a film that was made in the 1990s and as such, it’s such a pleasure to soak up the nostalgic atmosphere and to let yourself get lost in one of the greatest decades of all (I guess that I’m biased here, as I was born in 1990!); Christopher Blauvet’s cinematography goes a long way in making the film so amazing because the “grainy” camerawork truly makes it appear as though the film takes place in the ’90s (to look at it, you could even assume that it was indeed made in that decade) and several of the exterior shots are just so beautiful, artistic, and emotionally affecting, the effect made more profound by wisely presenting the film in a 4:3 aspect ratio and shooting on 16mm film. Hill’s direction is also on point because he achieves exactly the right tonal balance – mixing humour, nostalgia, beauty and dark drama very well – and through some very well chosen shots, he is able to tell a story and to let the audience know what the characters are thinking/going through with minimal dialogue, getting the information across through the characters’ expressions and movements.

Hill’s adept direction and Blauvet’s lovely cinematography work well together and in addition, the film is given even more beauty by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ score – a memorable and beautiful (I know I’m using that word a lot here!) piece of work that just hits all the right notes and makes so much of an emotional impact, going in concert with the onscreen images. And alongside the score, the film, of course, has plenty of era-specific tracks – from artists including Seal, A Tribe Called Quest, Cypress Hill, Nirvana, Ginuwine and Morrisey – that give the film life, energy, and go a long way in summoning the spirit and ambience of the ’90s.

Being reminiscent of something like This is England, in my opinion, Mid90s doesn’t have much of a story or plot but that never becomes an issue because the realistic, coming-of-age tale that we’re given still manages to be intriguing and accessible throughout as it contains several absorbing incidents, never losing steam during its 85 minute runtime, and the dialogue is superbly written – showcasing plenty of genuine and naturalistic dialogue that contains jargon, colloquialisms and colourful language that hit the ear perfectly and help to make the characters incredibly believable, relatable and three dimensional – a skill that some other films don’t appear to be able to master. And as mentioned before, Hill’s writing is occasionally humorous, letting us laugh along with the characters as they have fun and joke around with each other, but it’s also very dark as well, touching on themes such as abuse, drug use, self harm and poverty, resulting in a well balanced script that gives the film power and purpose.

The cast members all put in some very effective performances and in the leading role, The Killing of a Sacred Deer‘s Sunny Suljic is ideally supportable and likeable as “audience surrogate” Stevie/Sunburn and he convinces in his role of a naive and troubled young boy who finds friendship with the group of skaters, gradually gaining a tougher exterior as he partakes in alcohol, drugs, skating and sex and stands up to his horrible older brother. And in that role, Lucas Hedges is believably nasty and unforgiving as Stevie’s brother Ian, though it’s slowly revealed that the toughness is just an act and that he’s mostly “all bark”, and additionally, Katherine Waterston does well with what she has, playing the caring mother who later tries to prevent Stevie from getting hurt.

The film also makes great use of lesser known actors Na-kel Smith, Olan Prenatt, Gio Galicia and Ryder McLaughlin, who play Stevie’s newfound friends: Ray, F*cksh*t, Ruben and Fourth Grade, four characters who have specific personalities and depth and are admirably well written indeed; Ray is the level headed, cool and well respected “leader” of the group who shows the greatest amount of kindness to Stevie, F*cksh*t is the party loving “joker” who develops a feud with Ray because of his own insecurities, Ruben is the former “youngest of the group” who feels threatened by Stevie’s increasing popularity, and Fourth Grade is the quietest member of the group who dedicates his time to documenting the group’s antics. All give natural and very endearing performances and this small group of flawed but lovable characters go a long way in making the film so brilliant.

A thoroughly absorbing and emotionally affecting coming-of-age tale, Jonah Hill’s directorial debut boasts some wonderful cinematography that expertly establishes a ’90s atmosphere, a beautiful score, naturalistic dialogue, and very well written and supportable central characters.

★ ★ ★ ★ ★