Teenagers trying to fit in is never an easy theme for parents, teachers, or any adult that wants to champion selfhood and individual self-awareness. Adults know that friends are key to this passage. Strong families and mentors help buffer the pain of feeling lost in the world.
Jonah Hill’s first foray on the other side of the lens has its moments in this coming of age film: moments not of the typical humor one associates with Hill’s work. “Mid 90’s” is shocking in its sibling anger and remorseful in its depiction of youth in need. From its opening scene of a body being slammed into a wall, this film pulls no punches on drug and alcohol abuse and self-serving sexual experimentation. Too many adolescents see these vices as what it means to be an adult.
One of the best scenes shows our protagonist, Stevie, aka “Sunburn”, walking into his older brother’s room. Forbidden to enter Ian’s domain, Stevie treats it as a shrine. He looks in awe before touching a cap, lifting a shoe, touching a magazine, and almost caressing the neatly arranged clothes in the closet. This is not a typical teen’s room. This eighteen-year-old needs to control the one part of his life that he can. He is incensed at his mother’s loose ways with men, and bullies the thirteen-year-old Stevie to the point of pathological abuse.
Lucas Hedges of “Manchester by the Sea” ( reviewed Dec.3, 2016 ) and of “Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri” ( reviewed Jan. 28, 2018 ) continues his forte of playing volatile, grieving, unsound, senior-high youth. His talent for character complexity is in full swing. He can make a hardened bully sympathetic~ quite a feat, here.
The other cast members are equally laudable. Our protagonist , Stevie, is Sammy Suljic. Suljic is rarely off-screen and rarely without his skateboard. He is an observer. His quiet “ wanna-be” traits endear him to the four “homies” of the skateboard shop. Just like when Stevie takes notes of his brother’s album choices, Stevie, now dubbed Sunburn, is a voyeur of sorts. He takes in the crazy conversations of the group and glows at being “water boy” during spontaneous practice sessions behind the shop. He, also, takes crazy risks. Losing a body part does not seem out of context, here.
We , also, see Stevie in self-destructive acts. He beats his legs with a wire hair brush, and tightly wraps a cord around his neck. Hill seems to be graphically telling us that these kids are in deep places. Ray, my favorite character, is the most mature. Na-kel Smith plays the philosopher-king here. He is aware of all the homies’ individual demons. He sweetly mentors Sunburn: “You take the hard hits. You know you don’t have to, right?”
The other gang members are as natural and as hurting as any street group. Olan Presnatt is known as “Fuckshit”. He escapes through alcohol and abuse of his ADHD meds. He is funny, dangerous, and good at playing the dozens with cops for hire. “ Fourth Grade” is played by Ryan McLaughlin. His dream of filming movies belies his dirt poor background. If he can’t buy socks, how did he get ahold of that video recorder? His film efforts make a fitting close for this film.
Gio Galicia is Reuben. He is fighting for a place in the pecking order of gang hierarchy. We learn from Ray that Reuben’s mom beats both him and his sister. His jealousy of Sunburn is hampering their friendship. In the politics of youth relationships, Hill has it right. We remember those little group tussles as in the another of this years’ teen-based films, “Eighth Grade”, ( reviewed Aug. 20, 2018). Hill’s take is less up-beat, more urban than suburban in tone, but equally as menacing.
While Katherine Waterston, Sam’s daughter, plays Ian and Stevie’s young mother struggling in the parental arena, her character, Dabney, doesn’t “get it” until the film’s end. Vigilence is not in her DNA. When she asks Stevie’s skateboard buddies if they would like to see him in his hospital room, we hope for the best with her new realization that his skateboarding friends truly care about him. Hill has made us care about all of them, too.