Why don’t we care more about Jonah Hill? It’s easy to forget that this early aughts Judd-Apatow-Land sidekick now has two supporting actor Oscar nominations under his belt (Moneyball, The Wolf of Wall Street) and holds writing credits on four big blockbuster comedies (Why Him?, Sausage Party, 21 + 22 Jump Street). Mid90s, Jonah Hill’s writer-director debut about a kid growing up in Los Angeles skateboard culture, might not help him achieve the elevated household name he deserves, but it sure as hell should.
Mid90s might just be the most authentic film to emerge from Hollywood in recent memory. Yes, a large part of that can be attributed to the razor-fine precision of assembling a film of details true to its 1990s SoCal skater boy setting. It’s pure nostalgia porn: the opening shots pan across a teenage mutant ninja turtle sheet set (who didn’t have that exact one?), as we follow our main character, Stevie (Sunny Suljic from last year’s Killing of A Sacred Deer), as he sneaks into his older brother’s room to caress the logo of a pair of pristine Michael Jordan sneakers and flip through a shelf of popular hip-hop CDs and mixtapes.
Indeed, throughout the whole film, extreme care is taken to heighten the credibility of the world: from the logos on tee-shirts, boards, and merch, to the real skaters Hill cast as part of Stevie’s motley crew (Na-Kel Smith is the stand-out star as the group’s leader, Ray), to the film’s 3:4 aspect ratio shot entirely on grainy 16mm. Jonah Hill even admits to roaming LA knocking on musician’s doors in order to rummage up the rights for music from Wu-Tang, Mos Def, and Public Enemy. These details alone, not to mention the countless funny asides we expect from Hill’s writing, are enough to make the film’s short 85 minutes fly by in a sentimental haze.
And yes, many moviegoers—particularly the millennials whose formative years are completely encoded with Mid90s DNA—may leave the movie house satisfied solely from basking in the superficial waves of twenty-years-ago nostalgia. You can’t help but feel a twinge of familiarity when Stevie is poking around the neighborhood skate shop, eyeing the cool kids hanging out in the back as he waits for an in to their conversation filled with “your-momma” jokes and other superfluous teenage boy banter, or when Stevie is riding in a car with his new older-kid crew and excitedly whispers that it’s the first time he’s been in a car “without a friend’s parent.” We levitate on those forgotten milestones as they unfurl on screen, Suljic’s eager smile pushing us to remember those years where everything seemed thrumming with overflow.
But Mid90s is so much more than its perfectly-rendered nostalgia. Hill makes an excellent choice with Suljic, casting him as the little-too-young-to-be-doing-everything-he’s-doing kid. Because of this, each coming-of-age moment—the beating from his older brother (Lucas Hedges in another perfect and complex performance), his first beer, his first hook-up with a girl—takes on compounding weight. In our current #metoo era, where we have become (rightly) obsessed with calling out the crimes of toxic masculinity, Mid90s makes a point in showing some of where that toxicity incubates.
For amongst all that beloved nostalgic accuracy, the film is also filled with the language and culture of the 1990s that our current political correctness has allowed us to forget. This is a world filled with misogynistic jokes, racial slurs, and “faggot” and “retarded” as the chosen insults exchanged amongst boys. When Stevie is first being hazed into the group, the descending member offers him a cigarette and carefully watches him smoke it as he tells him the best ways to be accepted by the others: keep your mouth shut, act tough, smoke, drink, hook up with ladies, and above all else “don’t say ‘thank you’ unless you want people to think you’re a faggot.” When Stevie takes his shirt off in his room and stares at a hard purple bruise on the left side of his chest, we understand why he feels the need to punch it and get used to the pain. We understand his need to harden up.
Although I’ll leave it up to you to decide if Hill’s ending is slightly off-key, Mid90s is more than worthy of praise this Oscar season. For a man who has built a solid career out of making people laugh, this directorial debut suggests he has much more to give. Jonah Hill, we’ll be paying attention now.