Rating: 2.5 out of 5
A24 studios have distributed or otherwise produced a steady stream of indie films over the last few years, of varying quality ranging from the great (The Florida Project), the weird but also great (Under the Skin), the sorely mediocre (The Disaster Artist), and beyond. At this point the studio itself has become a bit of an auteur, the subjects aren’t necessarily the same but the aesthetic has reached a consistency in the last two or three years that includes plenty of lengthy, moody tracking shots and stylish flourishes. Which are not a bad thing! In Louis Malle’s film, The Lovers, he argues that love dies when there is stagnation, when there are no stakes, perhaps the same can be said for cinema. Which brings me to Jonah Hill’s directorial debut Mid 90s, by no means a terrible film, but once again an A24 vehicle that treasures it’s own ideas, interests, and style over storytelling.
The film follows a group of skateboarders growing up in, yuh, you guessed it, the mid-90’s. The boneheaded title can be forgiven slightly because Jonah Hill really does commit to the 90’s vibe, from the homophobia, misogyny, the music (with a small exception of the inclusion of a song by Hungarian prog rock group Omega we can forgive that because I am fairly sure Wu-Tang Clan sampled them, 90’s enough I suppose), and the clothing. He does a fantastic job in these areas evoking the 90’s, the skate parks in particular feel so lively with their own energy. The film succeeds little outside of the setting and background unfortunately as the protagonist Stevie (Sunny Suljic) was simply not the most interesting thing going on in this film. His story felt the least worth telling. His friends Fuckshit (Olan Prenatt) and Ray (Na-kel Smith) were fascinating individuals, full of layers and depth. Fuckshit’s slow descent into partying was tragic and Ray’s rise to the major league so hopeful, the strain was perfect and deserved a story all it’s own.
The background players in Stevie’s home life showed more growth and evolution than he. Stevie felt like a conduit in which we could view these events through rather than a character himself. Which was a shame because Hill had opportunities to let this character breath a little bit and grow up rather than suffocating him under his own flaws. He never internalized an of the messages given to him. A young woman in the film says to him “you’re right at the age before guys become dicks”, Stevie is already a dick who gives little care about changing. The film probably deserved another 10-15 minutes of resolution, the wrap up was fast, cheap and predictable. The biggest frustration as an audience member is his lessons are so clear but his unrest and dissatisfaction so indistinct it’s completely unclear what his exact struggle is.
This is not to say it’s all bad, Jonah Hill works at his best here when he leaves the natural sounds of the world to skateboarding. Stevie receiving his first skateboard is soundtracked by little more than the scraping of the wood, use of tools, applying the grip, it’s a huge moment in Stevies life and the quiet just makes it bigger. This is also true of a loving dialogue between Stevie and Ray where he offers his wisdom and takes him skating. The moment is quickly interrupted by the moody synths of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ soundtrack which was often overwhelming and occasionally disconnected from the action on screen. Hey dudes, it’s not Blade Runner. In many of the moments the soundtrack would have been better exchanged for the scrapes of boards skating across the ground, laughter, groans of injury, tricks being landed. The sounds of the skate park are integral to this world, and he silences it a bit, which is a shame.
The best moments of this film are the mellow talks and hangs, the clashes of boards on pavement, the fleeting insight we receive into each others lives, however I am unsure Hill was aware of that. The film played more like an hour and a half music video rather than the lover letter and homage to 90’s skating culture that creators had hoped for. It’s not all bad, which is perhaps more frustrating because there are moments of this film that work and flourish, some even laugh out loud funny. They are just interspersed over a screenplay that would have benefitted from a few more rewrites and a whole lot more focus. Hill has potential and years left in him as a filmmaker, now he just needs to capitalize on his best ideas rather than all of them.