REVIEW: “Falling victim to the pitfall of ‘style over substance’” – ‘Mid 90’s’ (2019)

Falling victim to the pitfall of ‘style over substance’, Jonah Hill’s directorial debut pays so much attention to getting the aesthetics correct that character development and plot suffer and are pushed to the side-lines.

Mid90s (Dir. Jonah Hill, 2018) is about a young kid named Stevie (Sunny Suljic) who lives with his single mum and aggressive older brother Ian (Lucas Hedges). Admiring a group of kids skating in the street one day, Stevie trades video games for his brother’s skateboard so that he can learn to skate too. As the group starts to notice Stevie and accept him into their world, he begins a journey of self-discovery, riding on the high of his friends’ daring and carefree lifestyle.

Whilst the square aspect ratio and grainy filter creates the authentic ‘made in the 90s’ skate-video aesthetic, it quickly gets old. In spite of that, the film makes attempts at creative cinematography that feel out of place, contradicting the initial aim of authenticity. Constant references to 90s pop culture feels shoe-horned in, as shots linger on Stevie’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle bedsheets and the posters plastered on his bedroom wall. He even changes into 3 different t-shirts featuring 90s cartoon characters in what must be the first 20 minutes of the film, as if he’s working his way through an essential 90s reference checklist.

A whole scene is dedicated to this materialistic nostalgia as Stevie goes through his brother’s room, looking through a wardrobe of 90s fashion, picking up iconic 90s sneakers, and listening to classic 90s music as the camera pans across his brother’s extensive CD collection. The whole thing feels overly sentimental, as if Hill has taken every childhood memory of the era and spewed it all out onto one scene.

There seems to be a lot of lazy character development that leads nowhere. For example, there is a scene between Stevie and Ray (the group’s unofficial leader) in which Ray lists all of the bad things that are happening in other kids’ lives in an attempt to make Stevie feel better about his own. It was clearly included to push the story along and to add emotional weight to a payoff later on in the film, but we have so little investment in the characters that it fails to carry the resonance that it should have. Stevie’s brother Ian is a poor character, unconvincing as a bully and following a predictable ‘boy realises that he should be nicer to his kid brother’ story arc.

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On a positive note, Sunny Suljic has an innocent, youthful energy that really works for the character. His sweetness shines through Stevie and we root for him to succeed. The kids in the skate group have great chemistry, bouncing off each other with a convincing friendship. A scene at a party where Stevie excitedly tells the boys about his first sexual experience is endearing, as the older kids marvel at how the 13-year-old managed to get a girl and they didn’t.

Despite the reaction being endearing, the scene that they are talking about is actually quite uncomfortable and lingers unnecessarily as an older girl kisses Stevie. A self-harm plot-line feels equally uneasy, particularly as it is barely develops and feels like a very surface-level depiction of a serious condition. The motivation and emotion behind it is lacking and the plot-line is abandoned abruptly, left unexplained and unresolved.

I was so disappointed in Mid90s. Coming off the ‘skate-movie’ hype of last year’s vibrant Skate Kitchen (Dir. Crystal Moselle, 2018)and the touching documentary Minding the Gap (Dir. Bing Liu, 2018), I was hoping for more from this film. It is clear that Jonah Hill put his heart and soul into recreating a vision of his childhood, but the result is all surface-level. This nostalgic snapshot of the 90s skate scene longs for a bygone era but lacks the heart and emotional connection to its characters needed to forgive its self-indulgence, leaving its foundations weak and underdeveloped.