With a title as chronologically specific as Mid90s, you might reasonably assume actor Jonah Hill’s directorial debut is a gauzy bit of nostalgia for people just barely old enough to be nostalgic about anything. This mild, paint-by-numbers coming-of-age tale does turn out to be more than a wistful recollection of era-specific bands and brands—just not that much more.
In the opening scene, the camera pans across a child’s bedroom to fetishize totems from a time when Coolio ruled the earth: a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles bedspread, a Hulk Hogan Wrestling Buddies pillow, stacks of slate-gray Super Nintendo cartridges.
Thankfully Hill shakes loose of this impulse soon enough to focus on the adolescent drama of Stevie (Sunny Suljic), a 13-year-old teetering on the precipice between shaggy-haired moppet and budding teen delinquent. We meet him on the cusp of one of those major childhood identity shifts when a kid suddenly renounces his former loves in favor of a new life-defining obsession.
In Sunny’s case, it’s skateboarding. He hangs out at a skate shop in the hopes of joining the boys who use it as a de facto clubhouse: pro-level leader Ray (Na-kel Smith), his goofball cohort Fuckshit (Olan Prenatt), the younger Ruben (Gio Galicia), and a dimwitted poor kid they call Fourth Grade (Ryder McLaughlin), who silently records their escapades on his handheld camera.
Mid90s successfully evokes the giddy thrill of joining a subculture, and the suddenness with which teenage identity can shift—much to the bemusement of Sunny’s semi-absentee single mother (Katherine Waterston).
But while first-time writer and director Hill is suitably acquainted with pre-internet So Cal skate culture, the film’s emotional beats seem not drawn from life, but ordered from a catalog of coming-of-age-movie tropes. It lacks the grimy little details that confer credibility.
Stevie goes to teenage parties where kids casually drink in between drama-free hookups and nobody pukes. Fourth Grade is supposed to be both dumb and poor, yet not only does he turn out to have some secret Gumpian insight but also mysteriously has access to endless supplies of videotape and editing equipment.
Skate videos were indeed a prominent part of that culture, but Fourth Grade’s incessant toting of the camera feels like a cliché straight out of the first wave of Reality Bites-adjacent slacker youth movies, with their self-aware video confessionals. This is woefully confirmed in the movie’s treacly, pat conclusion.
Mid90s works best as an exploration of a fractured family dynamic. Stevie’s fraught relationship with his aggressive loner older brother, Ian (Lucas Hedges), is the film’s most compelling conflict. Hedges’ character doesn’t entirely make sense either—a freakout near the end of the movie suggests repressed sexuality may be the skeleton key to his inscrutable hostility—but he’s such a tremendous actor he commands the viewer’s full attention.
It’s hard not to wish Hill had let his camera wander past the Ninja Turtle bedsheets and further down the hall to spend more time with Ian, rather than running the likable Suljic through an obstacle course of familiar indie-movie hoops in order to recreate the kind of childhood that only exists onscreen.