The first aesthetic choice that jumps out at you when watching Mid90s is the 4:3 aspect ratio. With other films like American Honey, A Ghost Story, and First Reformed embracing the archaic, once television-friendly frame it would appear that A24 knows something that we do not. “That gum you like is going to come back in style.” Yes, the film is instantly confined to a time and place, and nostalgic pangs for cathode ray tube sets grotesquely ripple across your bones. Do we really need to wax poetic about cassette tapes and VHS?
The second aesthetic choice that hits you is the cacophonous sound design that lands as young Stevie (Sunny Suljic) is propelled from his brother’s room and crashes into the hallway wall. THWACK! Ian (Lucas Hedges) collapses upon Stevie, delivering a pummeling that goes beyond the average sibling brawl. This is not a payback grudge match; it’s abuse. Their screams echo down the impossibly tight corridor, the funnel effect accentuated by the 4:3 ratio. The usual movie-sound is replaced by a howl we recognize as unfiltered everyday life, imprisoned by a mic on set.
Inside the box frame, the house is a cage, and it never expands even when the characters escape through the front door. Stevie cannot imagine his life on a widescreen canvas; he’s not built for the technicolor vistas of Monument Valley. He’s a latchkey kid who defines himself by the t-shirts he wears. Representing Street Fighter II on Mondays, Ren & Stimpy on Tuesdays, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles on Wednesdays. Even his wildest fantasies could never fill the cinematic gold standard of the 2.35.
Mom (Katherine Waterston) is not one hundred percent absent but trapped in a stasis of continual work, leaving her children to combat each other or freely stumble into the L.A. landscape. There is microwavable food in the fridge, mission accomplished. She is curious enough regarding her kids’ activities but knows not to push too far when inquiring about their day. They’re breathing.
Stevie’s horizon extends beyond the boob tube on the afternoon that he wanders into the Motor Avenue Skateshop. There he observes kids who are slightly older than himself rambling in a language that is both alien and hypnotic. The danger of rejection is palpable, but he has enough guts to attempt inclusion via a bargained board from his brother. When Stevie returns to the Skateshop with an utterly lame, wide chunk of wood, the crew accepts him based solely on his adorable, puppy-dog enthusiasm.
Childhood obsessions transition from cartoons to skate culture. At first, Stevie is a dunce on the board, but his hunger to learn and reckless mimicry catches the attention of head-honcho Ray (Na-Kel Smith). Running before walking leads to a colossal dive from a school rooftop, but where his mother sees blood, bruises, and danger, the crew sees a fellow maniac. Stevie is knighted “Sunburn,” and no other family will ever be needed.
Despite Harmony Korine sheepishly exiting the mother’s bedroom during the wee morning hours, and firmly indicating director Jonah Hill’s fannish adoration for Kids, Mid90s is a deeply sincere film without an ounce of cynicism or even that dreaded gritty, utterly unreal realism. Hill is attempting to capture a youth he must have loved, a time when discovering the acceptance of others outside the household is necessary for survival. We can and do make our own families. Is it truthful? Well, it’s honest to the memory.
Jonah Hill is offering up a hug, followed immediately with a warm blanket. Those that enjoy the cold will snark, roll their eyes and dismiss. That’s ok, follow Harmony Korine after he zips up his fly and he’ll lead you to a long line of emotionally disastrous films designed to stoke your nihilistic flames.
Sure, the soundtrack is a nostalgic trip, as is the slang and the fashion onslaught. However, at no point does the film wink or nudge-nudge. Mid90s is shockingly concerned for your comfort and the comfort of its characters.
These kids belong in the park. Suljic feels as if he was yanked right off his board and plopped in front of a movie camera. He’s appeared in a few other roles, but that’s not too far from the truth, and that’s certainly the experience for the other teen actors. While Hill both manipulates and strips cinematic artifice to convey a time and a mood, Na-Kel Smith, Olan Prenatt, Gio Galicia, and Ryder McLaughlin broadcast an authentic experience.
Coming-of-age films are as prevalent as any other genre. As with horror movies or westerns, they come packaged with expectation and preconceived judgment from the audience. Mid90s follows the tropes, dots and crosses all the appropriate letters. The surprise stems from the care extended by its director, the delight Hill takes in his aesthetic choices and the genuine life he coaxes from his players.