Largely plotless, slice-of-life dramas often get described as “quiet,” yet Mid90s, the largely plotless, slice-of-life drama from Jonah Hill (his first film as writer-director), is marked by violently loud moments and blaringly time-capsuled needle drops (from The Pixies to The Pharcyde). From the first scene, we witness 13-year-old Stevie (Sunny Suljic) being tossed against the wall and beaten by his older brother, Ian (Lucas Hedges). The sound design has been crafted to shock — a smack against the chest could actually be an encyclopedia crashing against concrete. Hedges isn’t the brawny type but, next to the pint-sized Suljic, he seems to have the strength of an Olympic hammer thrower.
Ian’s abuse is a repeat offense throughout the film, mostly taking place in the claustrophobic, green-walled abode the brothers share with their single mom (Katherine Waterston), who is well-meaning but at times perhaps more immature than maternal. Stevie’s eyes may match the green of his domestic prison but he has set those curious peepers on the world outside those walls.
Stevie finds his crew with local skater boys he has been observing from afar: Ray (Na-kel Smith), the cool leader of the pack; the goofy Fuckshit (Olan Prenatt), nicknamed for his trademark line “fuck, shit, that was dope”; the tight-lipped documentarian called Fourth Grade (Ryder McLaughlin) to match his intelligence level; and Ruben (Gio Galicia), who is about Stevie’s age but likes to act older and cooler (“I smoke, I skate, I fuck bitches,” he declares). Stevie eventually earns the nickname “Sunburn,” and the more he’s accepted within the group, the more jealous Ruben becomes.
Hill’s debut has drawn a lot of comparisons to the no-filter styling of director Larry Clark, and it also easily calls to mind Gus Van Sant’s Paranoid Park. As queasy as Clark’s Kids or Bully are, the conversations between the kids in Mid90s also prove squirm-inducing. Homophobic slurs abound, and at one point, the kids consider a hypothetical question that leads to a discussion of raping their parents. In the mid-’90s, teens weren’t yet “canceling” each other for being problematic.
The depictions of drug and alcohol use, sex (Stevie getting it on with an older girl) and violence (both self-inflicted and by others) are difficult to watch, as Hill brings a fly-on-the-wall candor to his depiction of youth and the film’s era. Stevie’s idiotic ballsiness gets him a bloody head wound but it also wins respect from the older skaters, and that matters to him more, possible concussion be damned.
Hill opens up other troubling storylines but fails to address them further: the older brother’s cruelty (the source of his anger is briefly hinted at when Ian tells Stevie about their mother’s dating history); and also Stevie’s masochistic tendencies (he self-asphyxiates, literally washes his mouth with soap and furiously brushes his leg as punishment).
But let’s not forget Hill’s sense of humor: Mid90s, for all its darkness, is uplifted by its hilarious moments and joyous skating shots — filmed on Super 16, set to the golden Californian soundtrack of The Mamas & the Papas. There’s a final violent moment, when everything comes to a crash, filmed and staged for shattering effect, but even after that, the film suggests that Stevie will bounce back just fine — as he’s done before.