The cleverest trick Jonah Hill pulls in his directorial debut, Mid90s, is to self-mythologize, to essentially lie without lying. By creating both conscious and subconscious connections to movies like Ladybird, he’s created an implicitly autobiographical period piece that he doesn’t have to acknowledge as anything but fiction. That way he can rewrite his own history without being bound by the truth, literal or emotional.
Hill never explicitly says Mid90s was inspired by Eighth Grade or Ladybird, but the implication is there. They’re all movies about teens written by young(ish) directors, and in Ladybird‘s and Mid90s‘ case, period pieces set in the time and place that their directors grew up. Mid90s generically in LA, some time in the mid-1990s, Ladybird in Sacramento in 2003 (Mid90s’ lack of specificity is a tell).
What Mid90s lacks compared to the other two, the openly semi-autobiographical Ladybird and the more lyrical take on adolescence Eighth Grade, is simple honesty, both about its creator and about adolescence. Both Ladybird and Eighth Grade were willing to be vulnerable. The protagonists were awkward, they did weird things and listened to bad music, they fell on their faces and obsessed in ways that their creators would now find embarrassing. Which makes putting it on film seem honest. It feels like, at least on some level, like they were taking a risk, and speaking to something real. Laughing at your pathetically unhip teenage self is so commonplace that it’s become a stage show, so it’s not exactly a groundbreaking story technique, but Hill isn’t willing to do even that.
Mid90s stars Sunny Suljic as Stevie, a kid with extremely cool hair who gets into skateboarding, who you quickly get the impression isn’t Jonah Hill’s 13-year-old stand-in so much as the idealized 13-year-old Jonah Hill wishes he’d been. Even the music Stevie listens to — and Mid90s opening scene is literally just Sunny looking at the names on CD spines and writing them down, like a checklist of totems — are all pretty much artists you get the feeling Jonah Hill still thinks are cool. There’s nothing in it he’d be ashamed to have in his record collection now.
Most of the film is like this. It name-checks fashionable touchstones and disguises them as confessional. Bro, remember Ninja Turtles? The most honest part of Mid90s is that its protagonist desperately wants to be cool.
In any case, it’s notable that even in Stevie’s theoretically shameful attempts to be cool, he succeeds almost instantly. He gets mixed up with a crew of multiracial skater kids — black skate shop worker/skate expert Ray (Na-Kel Smith), Ray’s mixed-race best friend with glorious hair “Fuckshit” (Olan Prenatt), a pimply white boy named 4th Grade (Ryder McLaughlin) who, most embarrassingly of all, carries a camera everywhere and dreams of one day becoming a filmmaker, and vaguely Latino Ruben (Gio Galicia), Stevie’s fellow pre-pubescent poser and tour guide into all things skater cool.
“Don’t say thank you, it makes you sound like a fagg*t,” Ruben tells Stevie. “Oh, ha, thanks,” Stevie says.
That’s about the closest Stevie ever gets to actually being vulnerable. He tries the craziest tricks, even though he sucks at skating, hooks up with 16-year-old girls three feet taller than him (oh please) even though he looks 12, drinks all the beers, smokes all the weed, does all the drugs, and never even pukes. He never pukes!
If this seems like a throwaway detail, to me it’s telling: this is a film so unwilling to allow its protagonist even temporary vulnerability that it can’t honestly reckon with one of the most ubiquitous touchstones of teenage mischief: vomiting from binge drinking. It gives us Too Cool 2 Puke: The Jonah Hill Story (Maybe).
Stevie quickly acquires a nickname from his new friends: Sunburn. This because 4th Grade, during a sort of impromptu open forum on race, asks Ray if black people get sunburned. Ray ridicules him for asking such a stupid question, but never actually answers it. It feels like Hill wants to depict how racial understanding might happen in a hip subculture, but he’s too timid to follow it all the way through — too unwilling to risk his characters saying anything too uncool, even too each other in a supposed safe space. So they quickly retreat into nicknames and calling each other “n*gger” and “fagg*t.” Which Hill, a veteran of 12 years of rich private schools in Brentwood and Santa Monica, oddly, does feel comfortable with. This is Mid90s’ trick, offering false confessions and walking a path paved by other movies, subconsciously associating itself with them, seeking praise for introspection without actually offering any.
It’s actually hard to tell at times that Mid90s is a period piece. That’s probably because there isn’t much in it that wouldn’t seem cool in 2018. The stars don’t seem like kids that reminded Hill of kids in the 90s, they seem like kids he thinks are cool now, who’d be cool in any era. When I saw it, most of the actors still hadn’t changed their hair. And why change? They know they look cool.
Hill certainly feeds off his stars’ inherent cool, and it must be said that the film retains a glowy watchability for much of its runtime in spite of its emotional deflections. The cast is fairly charming and undeniably watchable, and Ray especially seems like a guy you’d want to hang with, always doling out sage advice and frequently boiling down the film’s message into one or two sentence chunks. Ray will wisely clap a caring hand on Stevie’s shoulder and say “Bro, you take the hardest hits I’ve ever seen …You know you don’t have to do that, right?” Oh, I get it. Stevie is too hardcore, that’s his problem. What a moment of emotional vulnerability!
Lucas Hedges, playing Stevie’s meathead, orange juice-obsessed older brother, is the film’s most memorable character, probably because he’s the only one allowed to be uncool. The orange juice bit is unself-conscious, period appropriate, and legit funny — a glimpse at how good this movie could’ve been if only it had been a little more forthcoming. Hedges also gets to look occasionally upset and betrayed, clowned by his younger brother and embarrassed that his mom (Katherine Waterston) used to sleep with too many guys (about as much fleshing out as any female character gets in Mid90s). Stevie though, is too cool, and can only emote by shrieking “SHUT THE FUCK UP!” over and over, to obnoxious effect, and unconvincingly trying to choke himself.
It feels like Hill is inventing or embellishing his scars in order to fit in with his group of “authentic” imaginary friends. What were Jonah Hill’s actual friends like in the mid-nineties? What was his family like? What were his real traumas, other than trying to fit in (which is both vague and doesn’t seem like he’s outgrown)? I’d rather see his true warts and faults than watch him feign the familiar like he’s doing here.