Mid90s is a Likable Coming of Age Story with an Unclear Sense of Purpose
The era of Snapchat selfies and Instagram filters has made the 90s an especially fertile ground for exploring adolescence in a time right before children started to grow up with their lives broadcast on the internet. As someone who would have been just a few years younger than protagonist Stevie during the period of Mid90s, I remember just how much the concept of “cool” seemed to exist in relation to how older kids around the neighborhood spent their time. For his directorial debut, Jonah Hill chose to center his narrative around the significance of the childhood sense of meaning derived from riding around on a rolling piece of wood.
Stevie is a young thirteen-year-old kid who desperately wants to fit in with the older kids who hang around the local skate shop. With an angry overbearing older brother and an overwhelmed single mother, his home life leaves a lot to be desired. After bonding with the resident younger kid of the group, Stevie gradually finds acceptance among those who share a similar sense of uncertainty for what their futures might bring.
Hill demonstrates a keen ability to capture beauty in the subtle moments of dialogue between his characters. Little time is spent developing any of them beyond descriptors you might read in a dramatis personae, but the young actors possess enough confidence to project power in mundane conversations. Lead actor Sunny Suljic captivates every scene with an expressive performance that captures the essence of youthful angst.
Mid90s loses steam as it moves along, weighed down by the burden of excessive subplots that it never cares to explore beyond a few isolated moments. For much of the movie, the narrative moves at a leisurely pace without a clear end goal, enjoying the simple moments between the characters. To his film’s detriment, Hill seems unsatisfied with the open-endedness created by many youthful coming of age stories, injecting a forced sense of drama where none needed to exist.
Film rarely tries to capture the full essence of a character’s life, an impossible task for many reasons beyond the time restraints. Open-ended coming of age narratives often seek to focus in on a pivotal period in their lead’s life where at least some of the soul’s inner turmoil finds a sense of resolution. Perhaps the nostalgia of youth lends itself well toward comforting one facing life’s later struggles, which tend to carry a greater sense of importance than fitting in with the local skaters.
Mid90s isn’t quite sure what you should make of Stevie’s time skateboarding, which could explain some of the decisions made late in the narrative. Hill put forth an admirable effort in his directorial debut, demonstrating great talent in crafting memorable scenes. Unfortunately, the films fails to come together when it forces itself to find an arbitrary resolution. I have no doubt Hill will make many great movies in his career, but Mid90s fell apart when he started to try and reach a conclusion he didn’t necessarily need to present.