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.