Jonah Hill’s Mid90s: a playlist first and a film second

The dingy cinematography and abrasive score scream authenticity, but Mid90s hits every conventional beat of the coming-of-age movie.

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Music figures heavily in Mid90s, written and directed by the actor Jonah Hill and set in the Los Angeles skateboard scene late last century. The angelic 13-year-old Stevie (Sunny Suljic) takes refuge from his bullying elder brother (Lucas Hedges) in a skate shop where he falls in with a sweet-natured crew headed by Ray (Na-Kel Smith). They look out for one another and ask wide-eyed questions (“Why are white people so in love with their pets?”) that sound less like dialogue than ideas for stand-up skits.

Indeed, the entire film seems palpably written rather than felt, even before we get to Ray’s big speech about the domestic turbulence that unites the gang. The dingy cinematography and abrasive score scream authenticity, but Mid90s hits every last beat of the coming-of-age movie: there’s the first sexual experience; the artistically-inclined friend (a film-maker, though in Stand By Me it was a writer and in City of God a photographer); the rift and rapprochement. Spoiler alert: Stevie’s brother loved him all along.

Staged with skill is one scene in which Ray makes a skateboard for Stevie, attending to the task like a medieval blacksmith forging a warrior’s sword. Mostly the film strives desperately for effect over logic. Why choreograph a complicated single take unless it is for Hill to advertise his virtuosity? Why give prominence to a rubber Bill Clinton mask, except for the sake of gratuitous weirdness? Why include Morrissey’s “We’ll Let You Know”, a football hooligan’s lament, when the lyrics contradict the characters? It only adds to the suspicion that Mid90s was a playlist first and a film second. 

Mid90s (15)
dir: Jonah Hill

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article appears in the 12 April 2019 issue of the New Statesman, System failure