Mid90s proves that standard movie tropes are always familiar no matter how you dress them up. And first-time director Jonah Hill has certainly earned kudos for dressing his new film up to fit its epochal title: one only has to glimpse a few grainy frames (purposely shot on 16mm film for added effect), to be transported back into the last days before the millennium: compact discs, baggy clothes, big hair and of course a nostalgic soundtrack by a seminal voice of the era, Trent Reznor.
Although the title references an entire cultural zeitgeist, the film is far from being all-encompassing in scope or subject. Instead, it’s an insular story built on specificity, resting under a rather prosaic and vague title for lack of keener inspiration, which is its biggest flaw.
The story begins in Los Angeles during its titular time period, with a young preadolescent boy named Stevie. Hounded by his boorish older brother from the opposite end of the adolescent spectrum and given free rein by a lais·sez-faire mother suffering from arrested development, Stevie is primed for one of cinema’s biggest clichés: a summer he’ll never forget.
This leads into another hallmark of the period: the skateboarding underworld, when Stevie sets his sights on befriending a group of older boys at the local board shop.
As soon as he unremarkably worms his way into the affections of the boisterous but nonthreatening slackers, his story ticks off the requisite milestones of coming-of-age and its subgenre of films: exhilarating new experiences, wise mentors, chafing against his family, high jinks that just skirt the line of true danger and serious trouble.
Since the plot is standard framework, the question is if the parts make up for the sum. Stevie is competent enough as a protagonist: he fits the bill in looks and temperament, without hitting any false notes. The home life he shares with his threadbare family never truly generates a sense of urgency, which curbs any added weight to his arc. Stevie’s older brother and young mother aren’t guilty of anything beyond typical dysfunctional fare: physical taunts from the former and distractions by the latter. As for Stevie’s newfound entourage: they border on caricatures, with raunchy nicknames and slight characterizations that are as nuanced as a junior high yearbook.
The film suddenly hits a climax that can only be described as inorganic and again, contrived—but this is in keeping with its steadily innocuous tone. Mid90s doesn’t seek to innovate or make a statement. It’s a light tale that never truly triumphs or fails abysmally either—inhabiting a safe middle ground of familiarity, evident all the more by its usage of epidemic-level nostalgia for a past era that’s bound to pique audience interest. It’s the only true star of the movie; without it, it would lose half of its distinction.