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'Mid-90s' is a nostalgic trip through the pre-internet era when not having a purpose was the norm

Jonah Hill's directorial debut precisely captures a specific time and place, when not having a reason was part of the point.
Stevie, a thirteen-year-old in 90s-era LA who spends his summer navigating between his troubled home life and a group of new friends that he meets at a Motor Avenue skate shop.
Stevie, a thirteen-year-old in 90s-era LA who spends his summer navigating between his troubled home life and a group of new friends that he meets at a Motor Avenue skate shop.Tobin Yelland / A24 Films

The accepted norm between when an era happened and when the media turns their gaze back to it seems to be 20 years, which is probably why the new film “Mid-90s” on the big screen follows the Netflix 1990s series “Everything Suck” on the small one. Written and directed by Jonah Hill, who is mostly known for comedies, “Mid-90s” is more of a nostalgia trip aimed for a generation who might want to go back to that, at least for an hour and 20 odd minutes, than a funny movie his audiences might expect.

Hill’s directorial debut is best described as a slice-of-life film, a rambling sort of coming-of-age story without a plot to actually go anywhere or do anything. The tale vaguely revolves around 13-year-old Stevie (child actor Sunny Suljic) as he tries to find a place to belong in the poverty-stricken pockets of Los Angeles he inhabits in the summer of 1996. It sounds like a set-up for life lessons learned, but this is a movie less interested in sweeping moral ideals than of a precise capture of a very specific time and place at the cusp of the internet era.

For those who were teenagers in the mid-90s, seeing a period piece nail every detail of how that era felt will be a nostalgia trip, while also a reminder of how far away that time is from our own. The dialogue seems deliberately provocative at times, a study in how teenagers curse in their speech like breathing, asking each other weird and uncomfortable questions about nothing and how, at one time, slurs that many teens today might eschew were used without most people thinking twice. Sometimes the teens’ conversations veer into deep truths, but just as likely they end with then telling each other to shut up and heading off to skate.

Stevie, a thirteen-year-old in 90s-era LA who spends his summer navigating between his troubled home life and a group of new friends that he meets at a Motor Avenue skate shop.Tobin Yelland / A24 Films

Technically, the story is about Stevie, but Suljic’s performance is such that he’s less a leading man than an excuse for the camera to be where it is, pointed in the direction it wishes to go. Stevie’s home life is terrible, and there are moments it feels like the story is almost more interested in the lonely sad world of Stevie’s 18-year-old brother Ian (Lucas Hedges). Through Ian, we learn their mother was once a prostitute (and might still be) but trying to turn her life around.

When the story isn’t watching Ian’s struggles and rage out of the corner of the camera’s eye, it’s bidding us to look at Stevie’s friends Ray (Na-kel Smith), Fourth Grade (Ryder McLaughlin), F***-s*** (Olan Prenatt), and Ruben (Gio Galicia). At first glance, they are nothing but skateboarding slackers who spend their lives drinking and thrill-seeking because they have little incentive to do anything else with their lives. But in the corner of Stevie’s gaze, Ray is trying to keep sober, with his eyes on turning pro (towards the end, a Tony Hawk like figure is seen taking his information down, a suggestion his focus will pay off.) Fourth Grade may not even be able to afford socks, but he’s constantly recording everything around him on a home video camera, with a wild dream that one day he could make a film like the one we’re watching.

But their stories aren’t really heading anywhere, at least not yet. Nor does the camera wish to rush them to any destination beyond a few 40s, a blunt of dirt weed and a concrete jungle in which to practice board flipping tricks. What happens to any of them, even Stevie, isn’t the point. The point is in the shape of the film itself -- filmed in 4:3 ratio, the way TV screens used to be shaped. The point is in the soundtrack, assembled by 1990s music legend Trent Reznor, that could double as an “I Heart The Alternative 90s” two -disc set (the kind that came in the box in which the plastic rosette to hold the CDs in place has half the tabs broken before you open it.) The point is in the t-shirt parade worn by Stevie and his friends, referencing everything from Ren & Stimpy to D.A.R.E.

The point is in the gaggle of girls at which Stevie stares at in wonder, with their knit spaghetti-strap halter crops, phat pant jeans and butterfly-clipped hairdos. It’s in the joy of skating in illegal spaces and running from the cops when they interrupt. It’s about the small details, with no larger narrative to distract from them.

That’s not to say there aren’t quietly impressive performances within these slices of life. Katherine Waterson and Lucas Hedges are brilliant at telling a story of home life and poverty that our main character is too young to fully understand. Na-kel Smith gives a breakout performance as Ray, quietly forming the gravitational center around which the rest of the group of skater punks revolve. And Olan Prenatt is downright mesmerizing in his go-for-broke performance as a kid who has dreams but is slowly drowning them at a bottom of a bottle into which he should never have climbed but doesn’t know it yet.

The ending of the film attempts to suddenly jam a plot device onto this non-narrative, producing an odd MTV-style ending, with a video that looks like a long intro to a “Real World” type show. The result is the movie that ends a bit out of left field, but no less in the 90s than when we went in. Then again, a manufactured MTV-ending is just about on track for a time capsule of this nature. It makes one wish they could still go home afterwards and fall asleep watching music videos. At least the world still made sense then.