Painfully Aware: Our Review of ‘Mid90s’

Posted in Festival Coverage, Movies, Theatrical, TIFF '18 by - November 06, 2018
Painfully Aware: Our Review of ‘Mid90s’

Jonah Hill might have surprised audiences with a clear directorial voice. However his filmography as an actor, which guides this new venture, deserves a closer look. Sure Superbad, a movie that has some parallels with his directorial debut Mid90s, isn’t aging well to say the least. But the rest of his filmography is part of a gradual shift within some cultural dichotomies. It helps redefine, as it should, the differences between the leading man and his sidekick. It makes us rethink what it’s like to not be the coolest or most attractive person in the group, and how that has benefits.

The silver lining approach surprisingly – there’s that word again – appears when Hill depicts the life of Stevie (Sunny Suljic). He’s a 13 year old boy who is a victim of physical abuse under the hands of his older brother Ian (Lucas Hedges). But this isn’t some melodramatic film about that boy finding escape – it’s never that easy. The sympathy we feel for characters like Ian, ambivalent as it already is, shifts as well. But he still finds that escape in California during the era of Tupac. At a shop across the street where he finds other kids who he wants to be.

Suljic, who conveys paragraphs with his face, gives Stevie the intuition to know that these skaters are idiots. But they’re nice idiots and besides, they promote him from hanger-on to a full fledged member. And this is when this film becomes an ensemble piece, starting from when Ruben (Gio Galicia) introduces him to the group. Each member is a spin on an archetype. And there’s something about the way they look and act that make it seem like there was a collaborative spirit here. Nonetheless, Stevie walked into the group just when their relationships are starting to fall apart.

Hill collaborates with composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross and cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt. And all these men help infuse both realistic horror and subtle magic in the spaces they’re depicting. There’s a mildewed feeling to the hallways where Ian beats Stevie. But we feel a sense of wonder as the latter walks into the former’s room and finds rap CDs and dumbbells. Or at the skate shop where each board is a whopping hundred dollars. It captures what it’s like to be a kid and everything is out of reach. As a fan of messy minimalism, there’s a sense of curation here that feels organic.

Again, Mid90s shows Tupac-era LA but that Faustian rapper seems absent, and Hill instead replaces him with the likes of A Tribe Called Quest. Adding to the collaborative characterizations there’s a cultural specificity here without dating itself. Hill also gives a sense that characters like the group’s ringleader Ray (Na-Kel Smith) do not want others to peg them by their race or hobbies. This is also the time of immigration and racial tension tearing LA apart. But the dialogue shows how these kids are moving away from seeing people as stereotypes that others believed in.

Speaking of the dialogue, there have been conversations about the way it uses slurs. I can’t address the other slur against black people but I can address the one referring to my sexual orientation. I have no hard numbers on how often performers use that word but its use here is interesting. There’s specifically one scene when Ian uses that word but does so in hoping that the power dynamic between him and Stevie stays to his advantage. But there’s an awareness that both Hill and the actors instill within this work. And somehow that awareness makes the film better.

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While Paolo Kagaoan is not taking long walks in shrubbed areas, he occasionally watch movies and write about them. His credentials are as follows: he has a double major in English and Art History. This means that, for example, he will gush at the art direction in the Amityville house and will want to live there, which is a terrible idea because that house has ghosts. Follow him @paolokagaoan on Instagram but not while you're working.
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