MID90S – Review
Whether you grew up in the city or the country, you probably hung out with a group of similarly aged kids. You usually played games, explored, and occasionally got into a bit of mischief. The movies exploited that sensing of bonding and belonging nearly a hundred years ago when slapstick king Hal Roach created and produced the long-running series of short comedies called “Our Gang” (when they were sold to TV in the 50’s they were packaged under a new title “The Little Rascals: since teen gangs were the stuff of parental nightmares). In the late 1930’s, the “Dead End Kids were “B” movie staples right into the 50’s when they morphed into “The Bowery Boys”. More recently filmmakers have used the multi-kid format usually in a nostalgic setting. The 50’s were the backdrop for THE LORDS OF FLATBUSH and THE WANDERERS, the next decade had AMERICAN GRAFFITI and THE SANDLOT. But what’s the setting for this new teen buddy flick? It’s …gasp! No, not already?! Actor turned writer/director Jonah Hill returns to those golden days just a smidge’ over 20 years ago. Is it time to get all misty and nostalgic about the MID90S?
Oh, but this time is not a “golden” one for the film’s focus and hero(?) pre-teen Steven (Sunny Suljic). As the story begins, he’s getting pummeled by his older, much bigger brother Ian (Lucas Hedges). They’re left alone most of the day in the dirty, dingy little house they share with frazzled working single mom Dabney (Katherine Waterston). When Steven can escape Ian’s fists he peddles his bike to run-down Motor Street. He’s immediately drawn to a group of slightly older skateboarding teenagers. The ten year-old finally works up the nerve to enter their main hang-out, a skateboard accessories shop managed by the very cool Ray (Na-kel Smith). Steven is befriended by the slightly older Ruben (Gio Galicia), who becomes sort of an advisor or mentor. And Ruben introduces him to the rest of the group. Aside from Ray, there’s his BFF, the hard-partying, golden-tressed F*#ksh*t (Olan Prenatt) and the continually videotaping aspiring Spielberg, Fourth Grade (Ryder McLaughlin). Of course the moniker Steven’s just not cool enough, so they give him a nickname too: “Sunburn”. Over the next weeks and months, Sunburn hones his skateboarding skills and becomes the unofficial lil’ brother to the guys. But to keep up, he’s got to grow up fast as the long hot days turn into even hotter, more dangerous nights. So will Ian or Dabney ever step in, or will they lose Steven to his new “family”?
Suljic easily handles the burden of appearing in nearly every scene of the film, balancing a sweet innocent vulnerability with a fierce determination. We get that early on when Ian barks “Stay outta’ my room”, which prompts the pint-sized dynamo to barge right in. Sure, he’s a bratty lil’ bro, but Suljic shows us the fear in his eyes as he reacts to every small noise, ready to leap for safety. Later he shields his true feelings with a wall of cool indifference, hiding his need to belong, a yearning that makes him risk his very life. Truly solid work from a relative newcomer. It helps that he holds his own with the two more polished screen veterans. Hedges leaves behind the sensitive youth roles in his impressive resume (MANCHESTER BY THE SEA to the upcoming BOY ERASED) to play this brooding dark menace who seems to feel nothing but anger towards his much smaller sibling. Both actors have a great rapport with Waterston as the overwhelmed and under-equipped (in every way: financially, mentally, etc.) single mom. Her only relief seems to come from the string of “uncles” the sons see leaving her room in the mornings.
The film’s lead has several film and TV roles under his “belt”, while his circle of new pals may be best known for their skateboarding skills. Luckily they have an engaging on-screen charisma that smooths out the rough edges. Smith’s Ray is more the somber, father-figure to the group. He’s handling some responsibilities as manager of the shop, but we see that he has his “eyes on the prize”, with a future beyond the neighborhood. Of course Ray is best “buds” with his counterpart, Prenatt as the truly “laid back” F*#ksh*t who only lives in the “now”, perhaps rebelling against any form of adulthood, a true “lost boy” who needs things just as they are, even actively sabotaging his pal’s plans in a gripping third act showdown. McLaughlin’s Fourth Grade is mainly a silent observer, always recording his surrounding and interactions, really “living through the lens”. And then there’s the guy dealing with the most complex character arc, the often surly Galicia as Ruben. He’s the first to warm to Steven, perhaps welcoming someone who’s “lower on the totem pole”. The warmth leaves when the pupil gets more praise and attention than the teacher, and Galicia shows us the sad child beneath the hardened exterior.
Hill has decided to go the small, intimate route with his feature filmmaking debut. It’s shot on 16 mm with a “3 by 4” ratio to give it the “shot on the fly”, immediate look of a documentary. He gets great natural performances from his young cast and captures the feel of the decade (wall posters, CD racks, even a Bill Clinton rubber mask). Unfortunately, much of the script feels aimless with skateboarding montages used to break up the “hanging out” sequences (though many of the discussions are funny). For the over 30 crowds, particularly parents, the odyssey of Steven can be a stomach-churning endurance test, aside from the near-constant barrage of “f-bombs” and “n-words” replacing “bro” and “dude”. He endures some truly gruesome “board bang-ups” (with flowing plasma) that’s nearly as harrowing as his “private time” with an “older girl’ in a locked bedroom away from an ongoing party (thankfully much is in silhouette, but we later get a graphic “play by play”). And the adults are either nowhere to be found or they’re completely ineffectual. from the security guard they boy harass on opposite sides of a locked fence to Dabney who tries to confront Steven’s friends (they leer and make lewd requests) and is later literally shouted down by his son. Still, you can feel the passion Hill has for the subject and makes us hope that he will hone his skills and go deeper, and maybe higher than the MID90S for his next work.
2.5 Out of 5