Mid90s (2018)

Directed by Jonah Hill

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Mid90s is the latest in a welcome trend of personal movies made by people who care about what they’re saying.  Standing in contrast to the remakes, superhero movies  and CGI-laden action movies, they are unique in their own way, still sharing certain similarities that speak to the overlap in the human condition, at least as it pertains to growing up and embracing reality while sometimes reluctantly letting go of fantasy.

In these recent coming of age movies (like Lady BirdCall Me By Your NameMoonlight20th Century WomenAmerican HoneyObvious Child, etc.) a character learns a painful lesson about the world but nonetheless holds on (or rediscovers) what is unique about them.  These characters go through a rite of passage that bonds them to the world at large but which maintains their unique identity.

So the beautiful details in stories like this are concerned with small pockets of life in different communities.  Though we have a sense of where this is all headed and how the characters will change, what we don’t know is how many of these communities speak, what they discuss, the specifics of what they’re afraid of (though they usually boil down to the same thing) as well as who and what they celebrate.

Mid90s, like those other movies, shines a light on a group of people not often depicted, at least fairly, onscreen.  It’s a group of teenaged skateboarders somewhere in Los Angeles as seen through the eyes of a wide-eyed, innocent young boy named Stevie (Sunny Suljic).

Jonah Hill’s movie does a great job establishing a sense of place.  Maybe it’s just because this time period wasn’t long before my own or because the flat, suburban sprawl of a California town smushed in between larger cities feels like the place I grew up in.

Stevie is sweet and likable, and he has the bedroom to match.  Over the course of the film he will begin dressing like someone much older, complete with beanies, baggie jeans and routinely holding a cigarette in one hand and a 40 oz in the other.  His transformation is one part the natural growing up process and about nine parts going down the wrong path, led astray by slightly older kids who know no better.

At home Stevie endures the repeated beatings of an abusive, in some way closeted older brother (Lucas Hedges).  The beatings seem to go unnoticed by his single mother (Katherine Waterston), and we watch as the pain makes Stevie resort to self-harming in surprising, visceral ways.  The darkness here is striking, but I’d say it’s mostly undeveloped, there only to show that Stevie is unhappy but bringing along questions about his own healthy and safety that go unresolved.

Stevie finds escape in a group of 17 year old skateboarders.  They each have their own manner of suffering (which will later be pointed out as an example of how everyone has their own problems, not just Stevie), and are led by the self-assured, kind Ray (Na-kel Smith).  Alongside him are “FuckShit” (Olan Prenatt), “Fourth Grade” (Ryder McLaughlin) and Ruben (Gio Galicia).

Those with nicknames have earned a badge of honor which Stevie will soon enjoy when they take to calling him “Sub Burn.”  It’s a sign of acceptance that Ruben has apparently not received, and in Stevie he identifies a rival for the affections of the group he so badly craves.  The rift between them will turn into a fight by the end of the movie, but it’s a source of conflict that feels mostly tangential to what the movie is about.

There are other sources of conflict between the group.  These are the things that are always invisible at first but then become more developed as the protagonist spends more time with the people he idolizes.  Ray has a chance to go pro, and this slow distancing from his friends rubs FuckShit the wrong way.  For his part FuckShit drinks too much and pops too many pills.  He has become reckless in clear and frustrating ways which Ray knows all too well.  Then there’s Ruben whose mother beats him and his sister and Fourth Grade who is the poorest person Ray knows.

In most cases these aspects of their character background are implied once only to be commented on in the end, when Ray gives Stevie a much-needed pep talk and a little perspective on the world.  By the end Stevie will understand that while there is pain in his own life, so too is there pain in everyone else’s.  He will then smile and move on with his life.

Well, he does, but not until after a fairly contrived third act collision which nearly kills him and the rest of the group.  It’s so jarring, even if expected once the scene establishes the risk, that you may suddenly forget the details of Stevie’s own suffering.

See, where I have trouble with this film is how messy it gets in contrast to how neat it concludes.  Mid90s is at its best when it’s messy, but the story is eager to put a bow on all of this and tell you that it’s all going to be alright because the kids learned something… it basically falls prey to the trappings of every coming of age story, and considering how nostalgic and personal this one is to Jonah Hill, it’s understandable that it would end this way.

We’re meant to see this all and think, “boys will be boys” or something like that, but Stevie finds himself drinking too much, smoking too much and unleashing a verbal assault on his mother that never goes commented on.  He becomes a little monster, driven there by these skateboarding kids, and the movie never holds them accountable for their increasingly poor behavior.

In the case of that third act collision, it’s a car crash that becomes painfully inevitable when we see how hammered FuckShit is before he gets in the car.  It comes after a bottoming out scene in which everyone is at their respective low points, the group’s relationship is strained, and then for some reason they hop in the car only to then decide they want out.

Before we see this happen, the movie has established how aware Ray is of FuckShit’s drug problem.  He tries to calm him down earlier, and his recognition of his friend’s problems apparently go right out the window (almost with him) when they get in the car.  I don’t envision any scenario in which that character, for all his wisdom, would get in the car or allow his friends to get in the car.

So FuckShit’s poor behavior nearly gets the kids killed, and Ray’s lack of understanding about this dangerous situation is just as responsible.

This is a dark turn for the story, which works fine on some level, but the movie is then in quite the rush to wrap it all up and say that everything is just fine.

As a coming of age story this works well enough, but the movie raises questions about an abusive home life and a kid going down the wrong path that it isn’t prepared to answer.  Sure, it’s important to recognize that everyone has their problems, not just you, but the problems in Stevie’s life are more serious than I think the movie realizes.

I can’t find the exact quote, but there’s something in Bill Burr’s standup in which he talks about having a fantasy about smashing muffins at a flea market.  In the bit he says he laughs to himself, his wife asks what’s so funny, and he tries to explain it to her.  He looks at her confounded expression and says, “It’s kinda funny, right?” And she says, “No, it’s not.”

That’s how I feel about the darkness of Mid90s.

This is a wonderful little film, and I hope Jonah Hill and other first time filmmakers are afforded the opportunity to do what he’s done here.  It’s messy and entertaining, much like the characters themselves, and it’s made with a sense of honesty, heart, authenticity and empathy more than anything else, which a lot of movies could use more of.

Up Next: The Fog (1980), The Ritual (2017), The Rover (2014)

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