It seems to be the year of coming of age stories. I mean every year there is a spurt of films about the young finding their ways in different walks of society. From last years Lady Bird trying to contend with being a woman, daughter and herself in Midwest America to this years Booksmart about two precocious girls learning that growing up too fast can be a bad thing. While both of those films succeed by concentrating on the things happening in between, the little moments, Mid90s struggles to connect by rigidly telling a story that doesn’t feel human.
Telling the story of aspiring skater Stevie (Sunny Suljic) and the group of other skaters he connects with. From leader Ray (Na-Kel Smith) to partier Fuckshit (Olan Prenatt), each is figuring out their place on the streets of LA while skating around, ignoring the problems in their own lives for a little while. Each is desperate to prove themselves but their overeager natures might just be what gets them in more trouble than they can deal with.
Its a carefully thought out story, with a clear cut plot, some intricate cinematography and an idyllic notion of a community that could easily be seen as downtrodden. However what is clearly something crafted out of a position of love feels more like a painting, a motionless ideal of a time and place, not something real. The longer you look at it the more flaws come to the surface, bubbling away until they are all you can see.
Debut director Jonah Hill has crafted a film around a group of teenagers that suffer from overthought. Not only are they all unbearably childish but they flip between that and moments of wisdom beyond their years. Never existing in that special place somewhere in the middle, Hill (who also serves as writer) ensures none of his characters are ever content to just exist as kids. Like a disappointed parent I kept waiting for these teenagers to act their age. The problem with this lack of depth is that the moments of learning, of catharsis lack meaning for people can’t learn something they already know or aren’t ready for and Stevie and his cohorts are oddly both.
This rolls into the tone being developed, with Hill crafting a nostalgic story, shot entirely in a grainy sepia colour, reminiscent of old school VHS quality tapes. This hopeful look back at what was and what could be, the things that they are yet to experience, yet to know is stunted by the notion that these kids are devoid of the kind of optimism that is always inside us. Hill wants to make out that getting older in this neighbourhood rids you of this notion that good things can happen, that getting older only brings misery but these kids don’t know that yet and they still don’t possess a lick of hopefulness.
If anything it feels like a depressing skate video, a low rent CKY tape only without any of the jokey, kids messing around childishness. While there is a certain flair to how Hill displays his characters, this community he has created for them and the families they make and have, the notion of splitting away from peoples expectations and growing into your own person is something alluded to but disagreed with to the point that the films central conceit is compromised. Throw in some Gary Sanchez humour and a few moments of tone deaf physical comedy and the delicate, intimacy disappears from sight.
While Stevie and his friends are content to exist in their own little bubble, feeding off each other in a way, Hill never quite differentiates who they are as individuals, instead making them more like each other, never like themselves. They don’t own enough personality outside of each other and while a scene mid film tries to make out that your own self interest means you don’t quite understand them, it still doesn’t equate to something more than what they are on paper.
In the end they end up being idealised caricatures of 90s stereotypes in a film that lacks the depth to bring them to life. It serves as a surface level philosophical film about growing up in a time when things were simpler but in doing so it feels like a film that never really gets to the point and never earns it’s purpose.