This year’s Glasgow Film Festival opened on Wednesday night with a screening of Mid90s, actor Jonah Hill’s directorial debut. Young, diminutive Stevie (Sunny Suljic) is friendless and bored, living at home with his mother Dabney (Katherine Waterston, in a thankless role) and abusive, abrasive older brother Ian (Lucas Hedges). One day, from across the street, he sees a group of boys skating on the pavement. There’s something about the way they carry themselves; not only can they skate well, but they’re confident and have obvious (and toxic) rapport. Stevie shyly but surely begins inveigling his way into their circle.
There are two figureheads in this small group, each of whom will exert an influence on Stevie. There’s Ray (Na-Kel Smith), supremely assured and worldly wise, he aspires to become a professional skater; and then there’s Fuckshit (Olan Prenatt, named so for his tendency to say “Fuck! Shit! That was dope!” after each of his tricks), a charismatic party-boy. These opposites are triangulated when Dabney becomes aware of his proximity to the usual teenage temptations.
Hill, whose recent performance in Gus van Sant’s Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot ranks among the best of his career, grants himself certain luxuries for his first film. It’s (expensively) soundtracked with familiar songs, it’s scored by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, and it’s shot on 16mm, using a 4:3 aspect ratio. Hill’s problems begin with the last of these facts.
The tall and narrow frames of this film reveal that Hill has nothing like a developed understanding of film space; the camera’s placement is often merely convenient, and offers a viewer easy answers as to its purpose: when Stevie is alone outside his house, the camera is withdrawn, emphasising his loneliness, and when he’s skating on the road, the height of the frame is an emblem of his newfound freedom. It’s not even been a year since Crystal Moselle’s Skate Kitchen played in cinemas, a film which displays a great deal more intelligence in the framing of its characters.
Skate Kitchen’s drama is also more involving, as its characters’ portraits are richer, the badinage within the group more soulful. The friendships in Mid90s are paper thin, and Hill compensates for this with some ill-fitting formal tricks. For instance, later in the film, when a situation arises, the film’s sound design is ramped up; because, if you cannot make an audience care about the film’s subjects, you can always attack their senses, and see if they can tell the difference.
Hill’s film is a bit like Stevie’s entry into the group. As Stevie is desperate to fit in with the cool, poised older kids he looks up to and envies, so Hill is trying to fit in with the cues and marks of a tight, coming of age indie drama. Where Stevie cannot execute a trick, Hill cannot find an expressive scene, a fitting image. Mid90s is a film about belonging which itself wants to belong: and it’s unsuccessful on both counts.
Image: Harald Kirchel via Wikimedia Commons.