There’s little you can expect about Jonah Hill’s directorial debut, Mid90s, based on what you know about him as an actor. The Hill we’re familiar with—first as the hilarious loudmouth in Superbad, then as the writhing, Quaalude-popping businessman in The Wolf of Wall Street, and most recently as a super-sad potential schizophrenic in Cary Fukunaga’s Maniac—has always been someone else’s vision. But the vision of Mid90s is wholeheartedly Hill’s own. “This movie is my heart,” Hill said during a recent post-film Q&A in Los Angeles with his Moneyball director, Bennett Miller. “It’s how I feel. It’s how I see the world and saw the world growing up.” The sarcastic characters of Hill’s performances have been replaced by a grateful idealist who talks about his first film like a proud papa handing out cigars.
Mid90s tells the story of 13-year-old Stevie (Sunny Suljic) who, after he’s rejected and bullied by his older brother Ian (Lucas Hedges), finds new role models in a crew of skaters led by the wise and magnanimous Ray (Na-kel Smith). Stevie’s willingness to repeatedly fall on hard concrete as he tries to maneuver a skateboard that looks half his height endears him to his newfound friends. The resultant feelings—and the film’s title—places Mid90s squarely in Hill’s nostalgic memory, where he both dramatizes and idealizes the kids’ adventures.
Thankfully, Hill’s gift for comedy translates. His script is clever, tight, and honest, but the best parts of the film relate to trauma, which is where Hill’s voice really shines. The sounds of falls and punches are unexpectedly loud because Hill wants them to hurt—and he also wants to focus on how they embody the clumsy, layman therapy that ’90s skaters provided one another. Suljic’s impressive performance is aided by a supporting cast of similarly solid actors, especially pro skater (and first-time actor) Smith, who steals several scenes as the benevolent ruler of the skate crew.
But Mid90s falters when held up against our current cultural landscape. The film portrays an exclusively patriarchal system of advancement and achievement for Stevie, and the few women in the film are predominantly characterized by their sexual activities. This doesn’t feel intentional so much as clueless: Mid90s comes off as a film made by someone who has had largely positive experiences with patriarchal power structures.
Mid90s was greenlit in early 2016, before the last presidential election and long before the #MeToo movement. Is that a good enough excuse? I loved Mid90s for its moving portrayal of a patriarchal found family and because it made me feel like I was there, hanging out with these guys. But intentionally or not, Hill’s vision puts us so close to the story that it makes it hard to see the cracks in his idealized vision of youth.