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Mid90s

In case the title didn’t make it immediately obvious, Mid90s spares no time or expense in showing us that the movie is set in the ’90s. The opening credits sequence is a montage in which we follow our young protagonist (Stevie, played by Sunny Suljic) from his Ninja Turtles bedspread and his Super NES console to the CD cases and porno mags in his big brother’s room. (The big brother is Ian, played by Lucas Hedges.) The soundtrack is loaded with ’90s staples, the T-shirts bear images of classic ’90s entertainment, and even the film itself has a retro feel, shot on film in a 4:3 aspect ratio.

The style is easily the strongest gimmick this movie has going for it. That and a couple of impressive performances from Suljic and Hedges. Katherine Waterston also gets a couple of golden moments as the boys’ mother. As for the plot itself… well, there’s not much to say. Stevie is a grade-school kid with a physically abusive older brother and an astronomical pain threshold. So he finds a place among a crew of skateboarders, discovers drugs and women, and it’s a straightforward coming-of-age story from there.

To be clear, I was Stevie’s age during this time period. I distinctly remember growing up when the economy was good, we weren’t at war with anyone, and we were still innocent enough that a politician could get impeached for an extramarital affair. I remember when everyone else’s problems were a world away because dial-up internet was still a rare luxury and portable phones were the size of a brick. I remember when rumors and stolen Playboy magazines were all that anyone knew about sex because we didn’t have all the porn in the world at our fingertips. To be a grade schooler — without the worries and responsibilities of adulthood — in this era was the pinnacle of carefree.

So this movie should’ve hit me right where I live. And it absolutely did… in all the right and wrong ways.

Of course I know that kids have always gone posturing and lying and acting like they’re smarter and tougher than they really are, but it was something else back in the ’90s. For starters, the 1990s was a notoriously bad time for the LGBT community, and that was reflected in ubiquitous schoolyard talk of “gay” as a pejorative and kids calling each other homophobic slurs.

And lest we forget, this is the generation that made Beavis and Butthead a smash hit. The generation that made Tom Green a household name. The generation that made gangsta rap a nationwide phenomenon. This is the generation that literally invented the word “duh”. We were the “X-treme” generation, in which skates and skateboards were the apex of cool.

Watching this movie, I was forcibly reminded that because we had nothing else to worry about and nothing better to do, I and other kids my age were a bunch of macho posturing little shits. Everyone wanted to be the toughest kid on the playground, acting like the gangstas they saw on MTV and heard on the radio. Though strangely enough, I distinctly remember growing up with the War on Drugs and surrounded by anti-drug propaganda, something never mentioned even once in the film as our protagonist consumes so much tobacco, alcohol, and weed. That’s not even getting started on his use of homophobic slurs or his first sexual encounter.

As a reminder, our protagonist is something like ten years old. And his “love interest” (played by Alexa Demie) barely deserves to be called as such, since she’s only in the movie for the one scene, and the event is portrayed in squicky detail that stops just short of actual nudity.

In case it isn’t clear, I want to state right up front that our cast is full of awful human beings. I can make excuses for the main family, as Waterston’s character is not up to the task of parenting in spite of her best efforts and intentions; Ian is a bully whose tough talk evaporates the minute he’s challenged by someone his own size and we can see that he really does care about his little brother; and Stevie was raised in such an incompetent home that of course he’d go looking for family and role models in all the wrong places. Even so, our supporting cast of crude and drugged-up skateboarders (played by Na-kel Smith, Olan Prenatt, Ryder McLaughlin, and Gio Galicia) are such irresponsible jackasses that I positively loathed spending time with them. It certainly doesn’t help that, again, they’re peer-pressuring a grade-schooler into drugs and sex. Though they are at least good enough to take care of each other when they’re physically hurt, so there’s that.

I will admit that the skateboarding-centric premise is pretty cool… except that Skate Kitchen did the exact same schtick much better, and with the added novelty of a majority-female cast. Also, it’s not as tasteful or authentic as Eighth Grade, it’s not as uplifting or inspirational as Love, Simon, it’s not as creative or evocative as We the Animals, and those are just the coming-of-age stories released this year. Factoring in all the many and varied coming-of-age stories that have been flooding the marketplace these past few years, any competitor has to offer something truly special to stand out. A ’90s nostalgia focus is simply not enough to cut it, when ’90s culture is fucking inescapable right now.

Without all of that, what are we left with? A predictable plot that never innovates beyond the most basic “coming-of-age” premise and a bunch of two-dimensional characters who wouldn’t know growth if you dropped them in fertilizer. Seriously, even when the characters are called out on their reckless and dangerous behavior, absolutely nothing comes of it. The admittedly spectacular climax is perhaps the loudest wakeup call for everyone involved, but the movie ends like ten minutes later with basically no indication of how or if the characters are any smarter or stronger for the wear. Even Stevie’s impressive ability to take a hit and get right back up stops just short of making any kind of metaphorical point.

As much as I wanted to like Mid90s, there’s no way I can sign off on it. I don’t understand how a movie can get by on ’90s nostalgia that’s become so ubiquitous in the here and now, and I’m not impressed by such a threadbare coming-of-age plot when we’ve already had so many coming-of-age movies (just this past year!) that accomplish so much more. It also doesn’t help that the main characters (with the possible exception of Ian) never visibly grow beyond juvenile trash fires, the underage sex scene is disgusting and wrong no matter how you slice it, and the rampant homophobia celebrates what may be the darkest and most regrettable aspect of ’90s culture.

As a quick little side project made by debut writer/director/producer Jonah Hill in his spare time, it’s okay. But as an awards season contender? Fuck outta here. Hell, at 84 minutes long, it barely qualifies as a feature film at all.

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