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‘Mid-90s’ is a nostalgic trip through the pre-internet era when not having a purpose was the norm

‘Mid-90s’ is a nostalgic trip through the pre-internet era when not having a purpose was the norm
27 Oct
8:45

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Oct. 26, 2018 / 9:32 PM GMT

By Ani Bundel, @anibundel

The accepted norm between when an era happened and when the media turns their gaze back to it seems to be 20 years, which is probably why the new film “Mid-90s” on the big screen follows the Netflix 1990s series “Everything Suck” on the small one. Written and directed by Jonah Hill, who is mostly known for comedies, “Mid-90s” is more of a nostalgia trip aimed for a generation who might want to go back to that, at least for an hour and 20 odd minutes, than a funny movie his audiences might expect.

Hill’s directorial debut is best described as a slice-of-life film, a rambling sort of coming-of-age story without a plot to actually go anywhere or do anything. The tale vaguely revolves around 13-year-old Stevie (child actor Sunny Suljic) as he tries to find a place to belong in the poverty-stricken pockets of Los Angeles he inhabits in the summer of 1996. It sounds like a set-up for life lessons learned, but this is a movie less interested in sweeping moral ideals than of a precise capture of a very specific time and place at the cusp of the internet era.

For those who were teenagers in the mid-90s, seeing a period piece nail every detail of how that era felt will be a nostalgia trip, while also a reminder of how far away that time is from our own. The dialogue seems deliberately provocative at times, a study in how teenagers curse in their speech like breathing, asking each other weird and uncomfortable questions about nothing and how, at one time, slurs that many teens today might eschew were used without most people thinking twice. Sometimes the teens’ conversations veer into deep truths, but just as likely they end with then telling each other to shut up and heading off to skate.

Stevie, a thirteen-year-old in 90s-era LA who spends his summer navigating between his troubled home life and a group of new friends that he meets at a Motor Avenue skate shop.
Stevie, a thirteen-year-old in 90s-era LA who spends his summer navigating between his troubled home life and a group of new friends that he meets at a Motor Avenue skate shop.Tobin Yelland / A24 Films

Technically, the story is about Stevie, but Suljic’s performance is such that he’s less a leading man than an excuse for the camera to be where it is, pointed in the direction it wishes to go. Stevie’s home life is terrible, and there are moments it feels like the story is almost more interested in the lonely sad world of Stevie’s 18-year-old brother Ian (Lucas Hedges). Through Ian, we learn their mother was once a prostitute (and might still be) but trying to turn her life around.

When the story isn’t watching Ian’s struggles and rage out of the corner of the camera’s eye, it’s bidding us to look at Stevie’s friends Ray (Na-kel Smith), Fourth Grade (Ryder McLaughlin), F***-s*** (Olan Prenatt), and Ruben (Gio Galicia). At first glance, they are nothing but skateboarding slackers who spend their lives drinking and thrill-seeking because they have little incentive to do anything else with their lives. But in the corner of Stevie’s gaze, Ray is trying to keep sober, with his eyes on turning pro (towards the end, a Tony Hawk like figure is seen taking his information down, a suggestion his focus will pay off.) Fourth Grade may not even be able to afford socks, but he’s constantly recording everything around him on a home video camera, with a wild dream that one day he could make a film like the one we’re watching.

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