Coming-of-age movies have been presented in a multitude of ways, but they're usually films with some trials and tribulations that culminate in the protagonist getting a well-earned positive ending. Mid90s, the feature writing and directing debut for Jonah Hill, has plenty of things for its main character to overcome, but it's a bit lacking in positivity.
Stevie (Sunny Suljic) is a 13-year-old boy (who looks like he’s 10) who has a bully of a brother (Lucas Hedges) and a financially struggling mother (Katherine Waterston). Desperate for any kind of escape from his rough home life, he starts hanging out at the local skate shop with four older boys: Ray (Na-kel Smith), Ruben (Gio Galicia), Fourth Grade (Ryder McLaughlin), and Fuckshit (Olan Prenatt).
While he finds the camaraderie he’s craving, he also gets exposed to all sorts of things no 13-year-old should encounter on a daily basis. They include conversations where non-profanities are the exception, drinking, smoking, drug use, and more. But with little support at home, it’s perfectly clear why Stevie would gravitate toward a group full of bad influences, especially when they accept him as one of their own.
The film is a throwback in multiple ways, starting with its use of Super 16mm film and 4:3 aspect ratio that emulates the ever-present camcorder Fourth Grade uses. But its throwback nature extends its use of child actors, most notably Suljic, in ways that you rarely see these days. Suljic is put in all manner of questionable situations, ones that should make any caring person cringe just to be witnessing.
During those scenes, it’s very difficult to separate the actor from the character. Intellectually you know Suljic is not actually smoking, drinking, and getting beat up. But he is pretending to do so, and the line finally seems to get crossed when he has a kissing/near-sex scene with a slightly older girl. You can’t tell a story of a character being corrupted without the actor participating, but it still feels more than a little icky to be a witness to the activity.
The skating in the film is not so notable for the skills the actors possess — although they're all actual skaters, so they have talent — as for the depth of feeling it brings for the characters. For each of them in their own way, skating and the friendships it brings gives them a kind of freedom they don’t have anywhere else in their life.
The pulsing soundtrack by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross and the period-appropriate music, clothes, video games, and more all help to set the mood well. After a breaking-in period with the mostly newcomer cast, the various relationships gel into ones that are wholly believable.
Thanks to this film and several notable appearances in the past couple of years, Suljic appears well on his way toward becoming the next big child actor. He has an openness, charm, and acting talent that sets him apart and makes him the equal of people like Hedges and Waterston. Smith, a pro skater making his acting debut, shows himself to be greatly deserving of more acting opportunities.
Mid90s will likely resonate most for those who, like Hill, grew up during that time period. But even for those who didn’t, it’s a rewarding and illuminating journey, and an auspicious filmmaking debut for the Oscar-caliber actor.