3 (out of 4)
In a year when several earnest movie actors readily acquired financing to inscribe their directorial mark – John Krasinski (A Quiet Place), Paul Dano (Wildlife) and of course Bradley Cooper (A Star Is Born) – Jonah Hill was not the one I was betting on as an artist in waiting.
Endorsed by the mainstream art house distribution cred of A24, Mid90s is a succinct if slight debut principally for its consideration of an unfettered and guileless realism. Hill's explicit millennial backdrop screams brazen nostalgia but the near-contemporary scenery is an incidental template for character development and cultural observations. The film bears surface similarities to Boyhood in this regard even if Mid90s lacks the timeless immediacy of a coming-of-age classic.
Hill's film rests on his confidence in an assortment of young performers, all of whom do not fail him – the slim story is boosted beyond mumblecore pretensions by the lifelike acting. Hill’s conception prudently resists a wistful lens and the naturalism is imperative to Mid90s as a way which to view the impressionable stages of adolescence – peer pressure, social acclamation, nasty habits – in addition to the best and worst of formative experiences. Sunny Suljic (The Killing of a Sacred Deer) is astonishing as our pubescent protagonist and his bliss and frustration quickly become our own.
I was a good little boy at age 13 but the ensemble of teenage characters Hill has gathered are a wildly authentic bunch. The family of our young lead Steven is on the sidelines because that’s how every fresh teen wants to keep it; Katherine Waterston is mom and Lucas Hedges plays the older brother. Seriously injuring yourself, misunderstandings turned to jealousy, succumbing to your friends' most damaging traits are the grotesque pangs of the experience Mid90s has to offer – the general ambiguity in tone is a further positive, provoking nurture vs. nature arguments and speaking to the confused perspective of early teenhood. Mid90s forgoes proper narrative scope but its concerns are relatable and its performances are plausible.
The widescreen-averse 4:3 frame evokes home movies but the stark compositions scrub all sentimentality. All that keeps the reminiscence relevant is the needle-dropping soundtrack – a fun collection of choice hip hop singles from the genre's finest era intermingled with generation-appropriate alt-rock tracks. It's a pleasing time capsule on its own but even the grooviest of playlists shouldn't supplant original material from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross invoking their wizardry a la The Social Network. In all there are '90s references aplenty but the miniature story remains soundly universal even removed from its titular framework.
To keep it brief...
Soon to Come:
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
and A Star Is Born
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