Mid90s

Studio: A24
Directed by Jonah Hill

Oct 19, 2018 Web Exclusive
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Coming-of-age stories have long been popular. The literary world even has its own niche term for this type of tale — bildungsroman — from the German words for "education" and "novel." Educations of this sort, as we know, don't follow a clear curriculum — they're often marked with glitches and growing pains. Part of the appeal of the genre for writers, or filmmakers, is surely that it provides them with the therapeutic experience of digging through their own mountain of hormone-washed memories and mining it for autobiographical details.

But does the journey of coming into one's own, of finding oneself, really end with adolescence? For 34-year-old, actor-turned-writer/director Jonah Hill it may be happening now. His first attempt in auteurship, Mid90s, premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September and opens in select theaters October 19th.

Although he'd been acting in high-profile projects since 2004 (The 40-Year-Old VirginKnocked Up), it wasn't until his starring role alongside Michael Cera in Superbad (2007) that Hill left a lasting impression on the public. Finding a place in the masses' memories, however, can often come with a price: being pigeonholed. Despite appearances in several dramatic films, including Oscar-nominated performances in Moneyball (2011) and The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), he has still largely been thought of as an actor in the Chris Farley tradition.

Still, Hill worked with some of the best: Bennett Miller, Quentin Tarantino, Martin Scorsese. As he told journalist Rembert Browne, "if you want to be a director, and you’re an actor, you have a front row seat [on set]."

Hill doesn't leave comedy behind entirely for his turn in the director's chair, though. After all, he has also worked with some of the best comedic filmmakers (Judd Apatow, Seth Rogan). In Mid90s, realism lends a hand to an over-arching dramatic tone, but the film is punctuated by occasional laugh-out-loud moments, as well.

Mid90s follows Stevie (played by 11-year-old Sunny Suljic) through a summer in Los Angeles during the (you guessed it) mid-'90s as he comes upon and then joins a band of older teenage skateboarders. There's a natural pecking order amongst them — determined by some combination of age, skateboarding ability, and general teenage cool. Some have nicknames (quite colorful, these include "Fuckshit" and "Fourth Grade"). Stevie, himself, earns the nickname "Sunburn" following a conversation about skin tone and sun exposure that ends with Stevie asking earnestly: "What are black people?" This sweet naiveté is quickly stripped away, however, as Stevie receives a thorough education in alcohol, drugs, girls, and using words like "retarded" and "gay" pejoratively in everyday speech.

These boys' skateboards don't only lead them toward vice, however. While skating, the boys mingle with both homeless people and skateboard pros. The skateboard videos the boys watch, filmed in Paris and elsewhere, are windows into other cultures. For these boys, traveling LA by skateboard broadens their perspective — and offers salvation from their problems too.

To begin with, Stevie is eager to fit in and engages in behavior that is self-destructive or conflicts with his natural sense of self. He is goaded by the second-youngest of the group, Ruben (Gio Galicia), who is eager to impart his understanding of how to get by socially. In interactions with Ray (Na-Kel Smith), the confident de facto leader, however, Stevie gets the sense that Ruben's rules might only be defense mechanisms or byproducts of insecurity rather than advisable laws to live by. Time and again Stevie postures to gain rank in the pecking order, and time and again Ray dismantles this perception, presenting it as a self-imposed, imagined construct to overcome.

Hill, for his part, has stepped out of the pecking order and broadened his milieu. Will he stick with his new tricks? A clue to his newfound confidence may lie in the film itself...

Although Hill maintains that the film is not autobiographical, the characters of this film were obviously shaped by his own experiences growing up in LA. Stevie is the main protagonist, but the character of Fourth Grade, who is teased throughout the film for someday wanting to make movies, may be most akin to Hill, himself. We come to find that, using the camcorder constantly at his side, Fourth Grade has been taking it all in, capturing every moment. He cuts it all into a calamitous montage and shows it to his crew — he's made his movie.

So, too, has Hill.

Author rating: 7/10

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