“Mid90s” works best when it gives us a glimpse into its specific subculture in the mid-1990s. Because I am not that familiar with its subject, I observed the film with anthropological curiosity as enjoying its authentic mood and laid-back style to some degree, but I was also distracted by several weak aspects including insufficient storytelling and thin characterization, and I felt rather dissatisfied even while admiring its strong elements to some degree.
The story of the movie is mainly told through the viewpoint of Stevie (Sunny Suljic), a 13-year-old boy residing in a neighborhood of LA in the mid-1990s. He has lived with his single mother Dabney (Katherine Waterson) and his older brother Ian (Lucas Hedges), and the early scenes in the film succinctly show how unhappy and lonely he is in his mundane daily life. While his mother is usually absent in their home, his older brother frequently abuses and bullies him, and he does not say anything nice to Stevie even when Stevie gives him a little present for his birthday.
On one day, Stevie happens to pass by a local skateboard shop, and he comes to notice a group of adolescent skateboarders killing time together outside the shop. As watching them from the distance, he finds himself drawn to the camaraderie among these older boys, and he subsequently approaches closer to them when they are spending their another day at the shop. To him, they look very cool with their laid-back attitude and frequent use of many expletives I do not dare to say here, and they allow him to join them when he later comes with an old-fashioned skateboard which he manages to obtain from his older brother.
As spending more time with these older boys, Stevie get to know more of them bit by bit. They are Ray (Na-kel Smith), a black dude who is the de facto leader of the group; his best friend played by Olen Prenatt, whose name I cannot write here because it is a composite of two common offensive four-letter words; Fourth Grade (Ryder McLaughlin), a white boy who often shoots their activities as an aspiring amateur filmmaker; and Ruben (Gio Galicia), who was the youngest member in the group before Stevie joined them. Whenever he is with them outside, Stevie feels free and happy, and he continues to hang around with them even after he gets himself injured seriously due to his reckless act of skateboarding at one point.
As Stevie and his new friends skateboard around here and there in their neighborhood, the movie serves us a number of nice moments to be appreciated for good period atmosphere and details. Shot in 16mm film of 1.33:1 ratio by cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt, the movie is often reminiscent of low-budget independent films made during the 1980-90s with its grainy texture and raw ambience, and I was not so surprised to learn later that it was mistaken for some newly discovered movie from the 1990s during one test screening. While I was impressed by the effective use of several pop songs in the 1990s which are mixed well with the ambient score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, I also appreciated several small period details shown on the screen, and I felt a bit nostalgic when a certain type of portable music player was mentioned during one short scene in the film.
As the center of the movie, Sunny Suljic, who previously appeared in “The Killing of a Sacred Deer” (2017), is engaging in his unadorned acting, and he has a memorable scene where his character happens to have an experience to be remembered thanks to an older girl whom he meets at a party later in the story. What they come to do during their little private time may feel inappropriate to some of you, but it is presented with considerable sensitivity and restraint at least, and we get some laugh when they later talk about their experience to their respective friends.
In case of the four other main performers surrounding Suljic, they are mostly solid with their effortless interactions on the screen, though the movie does not give them many things to do besides looking convincing in their skateboarding scenes. While there is a small nice scene where Ray gives Stevie a sincere pep talk as revealing himself a bit more to him, Ray remains to be an underdeveloped character, and so do the other members of his group. During its last act, the movie attempts to generate some drama among them and Stevie through a couple of sudden conflicts, but the result is contrived to say the least, and that is the main reason why the ending does not work as well as intended.
Furthermore, the movie seriously wastes the talent of its two notable cast members. While Katherine Waterson, a wonderful actress who has been more notable since her breakthrough supporting turn in “Inherent Vice” (2014), manages to bring some life to her bland character, Lucas Hedges, a young promising actor who drew our attention via his Oscar-nominated supporting turn in “Manchester by the Sea” (2016), is unfortunately stuck in his functional role, and he is merely demanded to look mean and aggressive except a few brief moments implying pain and vulnerability behind his character’s bullying attitude.
“Mid90s” is written and directed by Jonah Hill, who has steadily expanded the range of his talent especially since his Oscar-nominated supporting turn in “Moneyball” (2011). Although this directorial debut of his is not successful enough for recommendation, he shows here some potential as a filmmaker at least, and I can only hope that he will advance further with whatever he is going to direct next.