I recognize the kids of Mid90s. I wasn’t one of them, but we orbited the same space frequently. With a harsh Eastern European upbringing, afternoons, let alone nights, out with friends were a rare occurrence that demanded an endless series of planning, coordination, and lies. On those rare instances we were able to get together, it was like stumbling across a secret society, a meeting of all those faces that you saw passing in the hallways of your elementary school. We wasted away the afternoon before the night bled into the sky. The crowd thinned out but it was always the same handful of kids who stuck around, typically older boys, playing basketball. If they weren’t older, they seemed it. That was the allure of it, I suppose. You’re a kid sifting through a paradoxically endless and limited series of options that you can’t help but idealize those who seem so inherently confident, as if they figured out the great human game of life by simply opting out of it.
Stevie (Sunny Suljic) gets beat up by his older brother Ian (Lucas Hedges). It’s not the sort of rough horseplay you sometimes get with siblings; it’s a violent assault, where Ian ends up feeling a sting with each fist thrown. But Stevie remains in awe of his older brother, revering Ian’s clothes and music collection. Their mother, Dabney (Katherine Waterston) celebrates Ian’s birthday by taking them to a kitschy restaurant, the kind where Seal’s “Kiss from a Rose” would play at aggressive decibels. And it’s here where Stevie perhaps realizes his misplaced affection for his brother. Stevie gets his brother a CD, one that he knows Ian doesn’t have because he took careful stock of his massive inventory beforehand, and Ian simply puts it to the side, remaining utterly unmoved by the gesture. It’s a quick, quiet moment that’s absolutely obliterating in its repercussions.
Stevie ends up trading his Ren & Stimpy gear for something trendier by picking up skateboarding. Like Crystal Moselle’s recent film, Skate Kitchen, Jonah Hill understands the appeal that this niche enclave can offer someone who’s been repeatedly subject to despair and disappointment. And so Stevie mostly just observes the kids of the skate shop, where Ray (Na-Kel Smith), Fuckshit (Olan Prenatt), Ruben (Gio Galicia), and Fourth Grade (Ryder McLaughlin) frequent daily. He picks up on their mannerisms, listens to the sort of ridiculous conversations that young people tend to have, before transitioning from passive spectator to active participant. It’s the kind of transition that requires a kind of leap of faith, both literal and figurative, that demonstrates a kind of bravery that is enough to win the affections (and even scorn) of the tight-knit coterie.
Mid90s frequently captures the moments these boys move from naïve childhood into something a bit darker and uncharted. It’s littered with moments of tremendous grief yet also captures those fleeting moments of personal victory. And unlike a lot of contemporary films about childhood, Hill demonstrates a clear understanding of both the hostility and loneliness of youth. His is not the first film to address this (consider Harmony Korine’s early filmography), but the combination of this film’s cast, milieu, and remarkable soundtrack offers something overwhelmingly, even embarrassingly, recognizable.
Which is also to say that Mid90s likely will not produce the same affect on every viewer, which is stating the obvious but should be mentioned in this particular case. The characters of this film are exceedingly unlikable, their treatment of women as peripheral, and Hill is far too prone to needle-drop music cues. But this is a rare example of ephemeral, dreamlike filmmaking producing something tactile, hardened, and true. What Hill captures in Mid90s is a permanent document on a fleeting moment; a picture of the present that conjures up a clear, vivid reflection of his past. And in that reflection, there’s something very recognizable looking back – staring right through me.