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Friday, October 26, 2018

Review: MID90's never quite reaches the heights it's aiming for

When I was in my pre-teens, I fondly recall the MTV slacker generation that I was just shy of being a part of (born in 1983 for the record), but absorbed all the exact same media. The Beavis and Butthead episodes,Tony Hawk appearances at the X-Games, Rob Liefeld comic books, Sega Genesis, the list goes on and on. It's a time period I get a bit wistful for, and given that Jonah Hill and I are basically the same age, he probably has a somewhat similar perspective. I imagine if we sat down to just talk about whatever it was we dug as kids, we'd probably find a lot of common ground. Or maybe not. Though there's one thing I can tell for sure we'd line up on; only a cursory understanding of skateboard culture. The difference is I'm not trying to make a film about it.

Hill, the formerly stocky sidekick in Apatow comedies turned svelte Oscar darling makes his directorial debut here, with a meditation on young teenage life in 1995. Sunny Suljic, who's having a nice couple of early career years with The Killing of a Sacred Deer and getting up in gamers' feels with his pivotal role in God of War, takes center stage here in his first big screen starring role. As Stevie, he's a kid with a tumultuous home life. His brother (Lucas Hedges) treats him as a punching bag, while his mother (Katherine Waterston) is both overly doting, but also wrapped into her own relationship concerns that she can't really identify when things are going wrong.

So it's no surprise when Stevie turns to the first friends that will have him. He leans towards ingratiating himself with the local skater kids, a diverse crew that includes Ray (Na-Kel Smith), the leader with aspirations to turn pro, and his best friend Fuckshit (Olan Prenatt) who is equally skilled but has none of the same motivation, Fourth Grade (Ryder McLaughlin), who carries around a camera everywhere but whose name reminds me of a different movie I'd much rather be watching, and Ruben (Gio Galicia), the kid who gets him into the hobby in the first place.

From that point it's a tale of two different movies, one where this quintet hangs out, shoots the shit, and drops some funny (if offensive, yet probably 90's apropos) cracks at one another, and a second line of thought where Hill clearly wants to say something important about the youth of that time period, or maybe the pressures of adolescence in general. It's not terribly clear what the underlying thesis is, really. It's not a surprise that the former plays to Hill's strengths, being one of the quicker improvisational wits in the Apatow troupe, and when he aims for breezy - there's a relaxing charm to Mid90's that is a bit of a pale echo of more delightful hangout flicks like Richard Linklater's Dazed & Confused/Everybody Wants Some!! or SLC Punk. It doesn't quite have that same kick as any of those, or other, better films in the genre; replacing witter repartee for conversation that's only slightly elevated from the "you know how I know you're gay?" bits that peppered the films of Hill's past, but it has its own backward looking charm.

The struggle sets in when it's trying to veer away from that looser/slacker vibe and attempts to embrace "a message" and go full-throated Larry Clark. Stevie falls deep and quickly (honestly far too quickly for the running to support) into alcohol, drugs, and sexual activities all basically egged on by his new pals, which in turn makes his home life all the worse. We flash through all these moments so quickly though, they only barely register before the next big milestone in Stevie's coming of age has to occur. I rarely ask for longer running times, but the perpetual ADD this movie is inflected with does it no real favors.

It also wastes Katherine Waterston, which should be a jail-able offense.

Mid90's isn't an offensively bad film, but it feels like a wasted opportunity. You can tell Hill could craft an entertaining film in a mode he's comfortable with, but aiming for profundity finds his reach exceeding his grasp. Good try, though.

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