"Mid90s" is the latest movie to take a nostalgic trip down memory lane, playing like a time capsule of a decade gone by, rather than a fully realized film. Written and directed by Jonah Hill in his directorial debut, "Mid90s" is a snapshot of one boy, who becomes transfixed by some neighborhood skateboarders, eager to assimilate himself into their culture.
Stevie (Sunny Suljic) lives with his single mother (Katherine Waterston) and volatile brother Ian (Lucas Hedges). The movie opens with Ian beating Stevie rather violently, suggesting more than sibling roughhousing occurs in their home on a regular basis. Stevie and Ian aren't close, understandably, but Stevie still looks at his brother with some sort of admiration (mostly for his shoe and CD collections).
Seemingly needing an escape, Stevie enters a local skate shop where a group of older ne'er-do-well kids are hanging out. After minimal vetting and some teenage hazing, Stevie starts spending more time with the group, getting to know the eclectic gang. There's tough guy Ruben (Gio Galicia), aspiring filmmaker Fourth Grade (Ryder McLaughlin), swaggering party boy Fuckshit (Olan Prenatt) and the much quieter Ray (Na-kel Smith, subtly stealing the show).
At first, Stevie is just the new kid but he's happy to have a group of friends to spend time with outside of his house. They tease him and boss him around but Stevie doesn't seem to care. When Ray tells Stevie to go refill the water jug, Stevie's face lights up; he's thrilled just to be included. As the movie progresses, Stevie becomes one of the group and less like their pledge, and he starts adopting their lifestyle: he stays out late, smokes cigarettes, gets drunk at parties, and uses certain four letter words when speaking to his mom.
"Mid90s" affectionately hits some points of familiarity, calling back to a time when one would do anything to fit in or seem cool. What's crippling about Hill's screenplay is that it only scratches the surfaces of these characters, rarely developing them or any conflict, until the final moments when it feels shoehorned in and, in some cases, unearned. In the final act, Ray and Stevie have the best scene of the movie together, and this offers a glimmer of nuance that is sorely missing from Hill's story. There's a great deal to be explored with Stevie and Ian's relationship and the unexplained rage Ian projects towards his younger brother. But Hill doesn't dare to go there, instead letting crucial moments pass by without much thought. In a mere 84 minutes, we never get to know any of these people.
During interviews, Hill has made it clear that "Mid90s" is deeply personal to him, having grown up in Los Angeles with admiration for skate culture. None of that is injected into the movie, which is more interested in its soundtrack than the people whose lives it explores. There are so many skating montages set to 90s music that it all just ends up feeling like an overlong music video.
Without much plot, "Mid90s" needs to have characters to care about if we are going to spend an extended period of time with them, but everyone feels like a type and never a person. A hangout movie can be fun and insightful, but "Mid90s" feels like a Richard Linklater cover song without any of the wit or soul.