When sitting down to write these reviews, usually the first thing I like to do is give a little background about the film maker. Sometimes it is to give you a bit of my history with the director or to draw attention to someone who may not be well known outside movie circles. I feel that this time around this would be unnecessary as most if not all of you know who Jonah Hill is already.
Hill has already had a dream acting career, having success in both the comedy and drama camps. It was only a matter of time before he moved behind the camera and told a story of his own. Mid90s certainly has flashes of the Jonah Hill that we have all come to know and love, but it is the moments that I was not expecting that make Mid90s really enjoyable.
Mid90s tells the story of Stevie, a 13-year-old boy living in Los Angeles who trades in his childhood of Ninja Turtles and Street Fighter 2 and falls deeply in love with the world of skateboarding. More than even the act of physically skating, Stevie is hypnotized by the freedom and maturity of his new skate "family" and all of this operates around a love letter written by Hill to the last decade of the 19th century.
Serving as writer/producer/director of Mid90s, Hill clearly has had a lot to do with this movie. While he has a few previous writing credits under his belt, this is his feature film directorial debut. That brings challenges that have taken down even the best of entertainers and while Hill does not necessarily take your breath away on his first try, there is clearly a talent for direction there.
As a director, where Hill succeeds the most is in the ambiance and the details that will make almost any "90's kid" impressed. More than just Beavis and Butthead shirts and Super Nintendo, Hill not only flexes his nostalgia muscles but has a firm grasp on why these things were so important. The different wardrobes and interests of the characters tell so much about them without a word of wasted dialogue helping them to feel realized in a movie that does not give it's characters much backstory.
Hill instead lets the viewer figure these characters out visually which is obviously key in the medium of film. This saves time and keeps the movie at just under an hour and half which is probably a good thing. While most of the dialogue feels genuine as do the performances of the actors, the plot and overall tone of the movie can feel muddy.
The hour and a half that we do get is tight and the pacing is fantastic. While the story is fairly basic and predictable, that is not what Hill was looking to succeed at here. Keeping the movie small and personal is a great choice that really allows him to put as much of himself in as possible and where he pours most of his love into is the music.
If there is one standout in Mid90s it is in the music. With a little help from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross handling the original score, Hill fills this movie with quintessential tunes from the era. What may be most impressive is his use of stuff off the back wall, there are tracks featured from everyone from Nirvana to Wu-Tang Clan and so often they are not their most well known song. While skateboarding provides the most visual stimulation, the soundtrack is the heart and soul of this movie.
Even with all the best music in the world, a movie only goes as far as the performance of it's actors. Similarly to the music, there is a wide variety of talent here. Sunny Suljic stars as Stevie and man what a year he is having. He came off playing Atreus, the son of Kratos in the reboot of the God of War video game(my personal best game of the year and that includes RDR2) to getting the lead in what is probably the most sought after role of the year for an actor his age.
Katherine Waterston and Lucas Hedges round out Stevie's real family with your standard fare, but it is in Stevie's skate family that things get a little more experimental. Most of Stevie's buddies are either making their film debut or at least appearing prominently for the first time.
The less traditional approach from this group of actors gives Mid90s it's authentic feel but none on a bigger scale than Na-Kel Smith. Smith, a professional skateboarder in addition to his acting exploits brings the full package to a movie that demands realism. Smith is as potent giving a monologue as he is with a skateboard under his feet and gives the breakout performance of the movie.
Judging a movie like Mid90s is hard, I think I have made it clear that I really like this movie but I could see people with less of an affinity for skateboarding and 90's hip hop to feel differently.
This is when it helps to look at the director and try to understand their intentions and the movie they wanted to make. From what I saw, Jonah Hill made almost the exact movie that he wanted to make, one that was deeply personal and brought to it the things he loves. This is almost always the recipe for at least a movie that will reach some group of people and sometimes that should be all a director aims for.