FilmSpace at Glasgow Film Festival: Mid90s

FilmSpace is at the 15th Glasgow Film Festival, bringing many reviews on loads of new films. Film critic Calum Cooper shares his verdict on this year’s opening film, Mid90s.

We at FilmSpace are thrilled to be back for another year of cinematic delights with the Glasgow Film Festival. Over the next few articles, we will be covering a wide range of films this year, from the long awaited Eighth Grade to Stephan Merchant’s exciting directorial debut, Fighting with my Family. From John Hughes-esqe Irish comedy Metal Heart to Carol Morley’s newst, Out of Blue, and so many more. It’s a privilge to cover such an extraordinary local festival that celebrates the magic and diversity of cinema so enthusiastically, and I cannot wait to see else this year’s festival has to offer.

Mid90s – ★★★★☆

Jonah Hill’s directorial debut, Mid90s, opens our 15th Glasgow Film Festival, and even if it wasn’t in the title there’d be no denying where we are based on the first few shots. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles bed covers and a seemingly endless row of cassette tapes are only two of many visual cues that give away the setting, with the 4:3 aspect ratio and grainy cinematography truly convincing that the audience are peering through a looking glass into the past.

Our main character is young Stevie (Sunny Suljic), a pre-pubescent boy in Los Angeles who leads a difficult home life. His fitness obsessed older brother Ian (Lucas Hedges) often beats him, and his single mother Dabney (Katherine Waterson) seems caring, but distant. He spies upon a group of teenage skateboarders who ride, drink, smoke, and party, all things that look enticing to Stevie. He soon learns to skateboard just so he can join the group, all of whom have a variety of colourful nicknames. As he hangs out with the group more and more, Stevie’s relationships are tested and changed, and he begins finding what truly makes him happy.

Hill has said in interviews that much of his inspiration came from his own adolescence and the feeling of loneliness that develops at such a complicated phase of life. I could believe it, for the film walks a tight line between nostalgia and the present. Stevie is at an especially difficult phase in his life, and it’s fascinating watching him slowly pick up new skills and find his place, during an age when, as Hill eloquently put it, you find your family outside your family, amongst your friends.

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In order to capture the authenticity of skateboarding and of youth, Hill hired non-actors for the skateboarders, a technique previously used by filmmakers like Miloš Forman during his Czechoslovak years, and Crystal Moselle with her own skateboarding film, Skate Kitchen. While Suljic, Hedges, and Waterston are all known actors, the skateboarding group were genuine skateboarders beforehand, but they all give great performances. I wonder how much of the banter exchanged between these kids was improvised, for the dialogue between them feels very natural. Organic juvenile comedy and tension is evoked as a result of the chemistry within this group, creating the sense of years of companionship between them.

Still, it’s Sunny Suljic who shines brightest in this role. It’s incredible that he was only 11 when this film was shot. I was totally convinced that he was an early teen, as he encapsulates the anxiety, uncertainty, and longing for belonging that comes with being a teenager. It really is remarkable stuff from him.

I also think Hill’s direction shows a lot of promise too. This is a gorgeous looking film thanks to deliberate cinematography and editing work. The grainy cinematography and aspect ratio transports us back to the titular time period, and evokes feelings of nostalgia to a time when things seemed easier, but were actually just as hard. Yet it’s the choice of shot compositions and edits that evoked the most feeling for me. I was very fond of the long, repetitive shots utilised as Stevie attempted to skateboard or when the group boarded across various parts of the city. It naturally showed the progression of time and the stubborn persistence of a youth trying to fit in. It’s visually showing us character growth rather than spelling it out for us.

Stevie is at an especially difficult phase in his life, and it’s fascinating watching him slowly pick up new skills and find his place, during an age when, as Hill eloquently put it, you find your family outside your family, amongst your friends.

All of it seems done to convey feelings of loneliness and how they are eventually replaced by solidarity when we come across people who seem akin to us. You can’t choose your family no matter how much you love them after all. But you can choose your friends, as Stevie does so here. Even though this group leads a lifestyle that many, including Stevie’s mother and brother, would see as damning, that doesn’t matter for the film is all about how one finds their place. It’s a film that is more about inner growth and realisation than conventional beginning, middle, and end storytelling.

The thing that ultimately impressed me however was Hill’s commitment to the show don’t tell rule. We do get some expository talk or backstory reveals at certain points, such as when the leader of the group, Ray, explains to Stevie how he and the rest of the gang all use skateboarding as a form of escapism from their home lives in a great piece of acting from Na-Kel Smith as Ray. However, the film relies on the audience to sit and watch the interactions of these kids, what they get up to, and how they behave around one another, rather than have them just explain their feelings or life stories to one another when the plot demands it. It could be them skateboarding, or them at a party, but we’re still learning about them just from observation. Film is a visual medium after all, and Hill takes full advantage of this. Mix in a lot of charismatic comedy in the form of snappy dialogue, and a killer soundtrack that celebrates everything a music connoisseur could want from a 90s themed score, and we have a quietly sentimental love letter to growing up and, of course, the mid 90s.

I was originally going to give this three stars, as I had some problems with the sudden, arguably anti-climactic way it ended, and I still do. But, between seeing it and the lifting of the embargo, further discussion and analysis upon reflection has convinced me to kick it up a star. It makes a good companion piece with Skate Kitchen if skateboard films are your jam. But on its own, it’s a sturdy feature that respectfully relies on visual storytelling, and has clearly also come from a place of passion. There’s no denying the heart and soul Jonah Hill has melded the movie with. Not only a great start to this wonderful film festival, but a great start to what will hopefully be a lasting, fruitful career as a director for Jonah Hill.

Tickets on sale for the Glasgow Film Festival at the Glasgow Film Theatre. View the brochure here.

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