8.5 out of 10
Sunny Suljic – Stevie
Directed by Jonah Hill
Films like American Graffiti and Dazed and Confused try to explore the past with youthful eyes and a determined lack of nostalgia. Any nostalgia that’s generated really comes from the audience’s own experiences and not something the filmmaker tries to wallow in. That’s why those films become as beloved as they are: the more intimate and specific one of these explorations into the past becomes, strangely, the more universally embraced these films become. Everyone has common experiences that they can relate to, and we see movies like this so we can remember our past, even if we do not identify directly with the film’s experiences.
Jonah Hill knows this – knows that feeling of alienation, that sense of not belonging anywhere, and finding your tribe, even when the world rejects those people. I think that everyone feels that, from 12 to 80. What Hill succeeds at with his directorial debut, Mid90s, is translating those feelings and emotions and making them applicable for everyone. Young Stevie’s (Sunny Suljic) journey may be unique to him, but we see so much in it that we recognize in ourselves. Hill isn’t interested in making judgments on behavior or the situations Stevie finds himself in. We’ve all done things we’ve regretted, or said things we wish we hadn’t said. How we move forward from those moments is what defines us, and how we find those people that we want to invite into our worlds solidifies who we become in the future.
Stevie idolizes his older brother Ian (Lucas Hedges), but Ian seems to want to have nothing to do with him. Stevie’s mom (Katherine Waterston) is never around, and when she is, she barely has time to give him any attention. But Stevie is desperate for friendship, desperate to find some kind of anchor into he world, and so he gravitates to a group of kids who hang out at the local skateboarding shop. One of the kids who works there, Ray (Na-Kel Smith), has higher ambitions than simply getting high with his friends, and he and Stevie form a bond, even though Ray is in high school and Stevie is barely in middle school. The relationships in this disparate group of friends changes as the days grow longer, and the bonds of their friendships are tested through the summer of this undefined year in the 1990s.
And that’s pretty much it in regards to plot: Mid90s feels directly inspired by films like Larry Clark’s KIDS, but Mid90s never feels exploitative. There is an honesty that Hill is trying to accomplish, but some will view Mid90s as a kind of wish fulfillment. Stevie behaves badly at times – the alcohol flows freely, a lot of weed gets smoked, and the kids all have issues with sex and women – but Hill is relying on our common experiences with these things and refuses to flinch away from those aspects. Perhaps it may be an easier pill to swallow for audiences insisting on seeing punishment for bad behavior, but the reality of life is that not every bad turn sees a consequence. Mid90s strictly examines these things through a male point of view; although one scene tries to look at a particular momentous event in Stevie’s life from both sides, that feels more perfunctory than anything else. Hill doesn’t seem interested in that well-rounded outlook because when you’re 12 years old, people simply don’t look at situations from that perspective. For many, that will be an issue with the film, but I feel that because Hill isn’t interested in applying present politics to those situations, it feels truer to that moment in time. Let us look back on those moments in the past with our present perspectives, but during those moments, it feels more honest to just be truthful in how people can sometimes behave badly without repercussions or awareness.
Hill shoots Mid90s almost as if we are viewing Stevie’s world through the lens of a camcorder, or watching it through an old television picture tube, but it is beautiful and inspiring how Hill uses those limitations to create something meaningful and beautiful. The music choices Hill makes are telling – a nice mix of rock and hip-hop accentuates each moment, and like American Graffiti, Mid90s feels like a musical at times, with well chosen needle drops that heighten each moment. But Hill also uses a phenomenal score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross that cuts to the heart of Stevie’s journey. Sunny Suljic is terrific as Stevie; it’s a lovely, nuanced performance that seems to come from someone three times his age. The choices he makes as an actor are inspired. But the performance that may truly break out of this film is Na-Kel Smith. This is his first role as an actor, and it feels as natural and as confident as someone who has been doing this for a long time. Ray is empathetic and kind, yet still very much a teenager, and the relationship between Ray and Sunny feels true and real in all the best ways. Ray is ambitious, and knows that at some point, he will be forced to make that choice between his friends and he life he wants to have, and Smith makes that conflict feel honest.
Hill is a very good director; he seems to have pulled some skills from his many experiences from so many places. But where Hill truly excels is in finding a voice and a tone that feels right for the time. Mid90s may be many things to many people, but no one ever doubts the veracity of its emotions, and that’s due to Hill’s willingness to be unflinching while being empathetic all at the same time. Mid90s is often quite funny, and hearing these kids rip into each other while forming those quiet bonds that keep for life reminds me quite a bit of the cadence and rhythm of my own youth – bragging about things that never happened, or trying to find that place in a dynamic, or simply being there when a friend needs you. There are few films that get childhood so intrinsically right. Mid90s is one of them.