By: Trevor Chartrand
Apatow-comedy veteran Jonah Hill has diversified his career path considerably in recent years, taking on darker and more intense roles. Now he’s taken another step into new territory, this time helming a film from behind the camera: Mid90s is Hill’s directorial debut, and it’s chock-full of surprises.
The first thing that stands out in Mid90s is the filmmakers’ choice to shoot using a 4:3 aspect ratio – that is, this film would fit perfectly on a classic 90s fullscreen television. Now, the movie tries desperately to justify the aspect ratio in a few different ways, but the fullscreen frame fails to be much more than a gimmick, unfortunately. Does this technique set the time period well? Sure, but so do the excellent costumes and props (graphic tees and discmans, anyone?). In an age where everyone has access to a widescreen television, the aspect ratio is not only going to alienate viewers, but could cause concern that their TV may be broken.
Mid90s may be fullscreen, but this film is not modified from its original version – shot on 16mm, the cinematography is hit-and-miss in this picture. Plenty of scenes are too dark, making it easy to miss pivotal character moments. It’s especially frustrating with so many sequences set in the dark of night. On the other hand, there are a few cinematic diamonds-in-the-rough including a well-choreographed long take, masterfully executed with technical precision. The film is a sort of mixed bag visually, a blend of flawed and flawless.
The visuals are enhanced with an edgy score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (The Social Network). The pair remain unmatched – designing a world with a sparse, atmospheric soundscape. A stand-out composition relies on a music parent’s everywhere fear – a squeaky off-key recorder. Yet somehow, surprisingly, the shrill melody works for the film, creating an ethereal and ominous tonality.
Having also written the film, it’s clear Jonah Hill’s got some strong story chops. Mid90s is the coming-of-age story of Stevie (Sunny Suljic); barely a teenager, he lives in lower middle-class Los Angeles. With a difficult home life, Stevie appears directionless until he discovers a passion for skateboarding. A group of older skaters take him under their wing, and their influence changes Stevie in rapid and shocking ways.
Mid90s takes an observational, fly-on-the wall approach to storytelling without passing judgement on Stevie or the characters who sway him. With an abrupt ending, there’s plenty to unpack and discuss on the car ride home.
Each character is well-defined, with the group having their own dynamic, and complicated relationships between each and every one of them. The film showcases strong performances, especially from the child actors. In reaction shots, lead Sunny Suljic tends to fall back on the same sly smirk, but he has a considerable range – not to mention rage – for his age.
The 1990s were not a pretty decade, with the world in a grungy limbo between the color of the 80s and the cookie-cutter, clean-cut image the millennium brought about. Mid90s brings the time period to life with everything from the concrete laden streets to the PlayStation game controllers – everything was just so… grey back then.
Far from perfect, Mid90s is an intense and dark ride with a lot of heart. While Jonah Hill may not have mastered the technical side of filmmaking just yet, he’s got character and story down – that’s what matters most anyway. If he continues to pursue directing, we’re sure to see some great things as his talent develops.
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Trevor Chartrand: @OhHaiTrebor