Jacqueline Richardson ’21 | Assistant Arts Editor
The beginning of “mid90s” is comprised of sudden images cut together. Skateboards, still on the ground, are scattered with a force. A hallway where an older brother pounces on the younger one, pelting him with his fists. And the younger brother — the thirteen year-old boy we will come to know as Stevie — looks in the mirror and pokes at his bruised chest, then punches it, groaning with the pain.
The brutality of these transitions, as well as the violence of these scenes, accurately introduces “mid90s,” Jonah Hill’s directorial debut. Set in Los Angeles in — you guessed it — the mid-90s, “mid90s” follows Stevie’s entrance into the skating scene through his friendship with four older boys. There’s Ruben, the youngest besides Stevie, who at first helps him into the group but soon grows to resent him for taking his place as the youngest; the ever camera-holding Fourth Grade, nicknamed that for being as smart as a fourth grader; the puckish F**ks**t, called that for saying “f**k, s**t” when surprised or impressed; and, finally, the serious Ray, who hopes to make a career skating. The effect they have on Stevie is mixed. On the one hand, they provide him with a support group outside of his codependent mother and abusive older brother. But on the other hand, they often put him in danger and unintentionally hurt him.
“mid90s” is one of a few recent coming-of-age movies that approach their usually adolescent subjects non-judgmentally and with style. “Ladybird,” “Eighth Grade,” and “The Florida Project,” all produced by A24, fall into this category. Widening this circle, you could include “Call Me By Your Name” and the first two thirds of “Moonlight.” Most of the time, the protagonists are white, although the surrounding characters aren’t necessarily, and they are middle- or lower- class. Either way, they are defined as the have-nots. The seventeen-year-old title character of “Ladybird” pretends to live in a larger house to impress an upper-middle-class girl. In “The Florida Project,” the six-year-old Monique and her mother live in a motel in the shadow of Walt Disney World. “mid90s” adheres to these conventions: Stevie is white, though Ray and F**ks**t are not (Ray is black, F**ks**t, biracial); and although there is no clearly defined “have” in this movie, poverty, and the ease with which it might subsume these young men (if they aren’t poor already), pervades the movie. However, something notable about “mid90s” is that, unlike those other movies, whose protagonists are straight women or queer men and whose stories are often called necessary and unprecedented, “mid90s” portrays a world that is wholly straight and masculine, and there is no ostensible push for such stories. And yet “mid90s” does often feel fresh. It looks directly at the slight traumas that start to transform a boy into a man: how Stevie has to talk about his first time with a girl — which he seems to feel ambivalent about — in strictly positive terms with his friends, and how he has to endure physical trauma from his brother and various accidents. But the movie also doesn’t look away from the ways that these boys oppress others to uplift themselves. Ruben tells Stevie not to act gay; girls, to them, are usually just “bitches” to “fuck.”
It doesn’t look away from this ugliness, but it doesn’t interrogate it either. In the context of other A24 coming-of-age movies, which seek to portray their subjects honestly and without any condemning judgement, this makes sense. But where this lack of judgement feels radical and remedial when it is applied to young women and queer people, it feels less so when applied to this subject. The movie never clearly says, “boys will be boys,” but it also declines to provide some opposite attitude. The closest it comes to looking critically at Stevie comes when he lashes out at his mother, screaming at her in the car. You wonder what he is becoming, what violence he might employ in the future. But the implications of this scene are tempered with the knowledge that he is, after all, a child, and his innocence is quickly restored in later scenes.
If it had gone further in this way, “mid90s” would certainly be a better, more honest movie. It might fully provide a clear-eyed portrait of boyhood in that time, in that setting, which it seeks to do. Go see it if you crave the artful fixings of an A24 movie, but don’t expect the usual fully realized insight.