Mid90s betrays the legacy of the pop culture on its soundtrack — the punk, hip-hop, and alternative pop that found new, authentic means of expressing youth anxiety and passion. The film manipulates Southern California skateboarding culture with condescending emphasis on the lower economic class. Stevie (Sunny Suljic) is alienated from his bullying older brother (Lucas Hedges) and his part-time hooker single mother (Katherine Waterston) but finds “family” within a mixed-race gang of skateboarding slackers.
The songs are meant to represent 1990s youth consciousness; that is, to prop up feelings that the film cannot dramatize.
Actor-turned-writer-director Jonah Hill (age 34, the rotund guy from Moneyball and The Wolf of Wall Street but more credible in less ostentatious films such as The Baby Sitter) seems to have learned nothing from the pop music of his youth, except how to exploit it — using his CD collection for street cred. This practice is a weak extension of how Martin Scorsese has used beloved pop songs, a practice that shifted into the bizarre desecration of pop music in Quentin Tarantino films. Both of Hill’s mentors use music as semaphore — shortcuts to the complicated social and personal experience that pop music expresses with greater eloquence than most movies do. Hill comes somewhere in between Scorsese’s and Tarantino’s pop-smarts; so it is his lack of understanding — the smug, self-satisfied simplification of the songs that underscore Stevie’s life — that is offensive.
The essence of Hill’s cop-out lies in the non-threatening fecklessness of his gang of skateboarding layabouts. Hill’s group portrait of teenage American “diversity” resembles what used to be called Central Casting. It lacks the authenticity of Catherine Hardwicke’s Los Angeles-set Lords of Dogtown (2005), whose story about hopeless boys was, unexpectedly, even more convincingly empathetic than her female-puberty debut Thirteen had been. Hill’s juvenile view of adolescent experience as rife with suicide, violent siblings, dysfunctional homes, and distracted parental role models merely repeats media clichés — ADD drugs and malt-liquor 40s — eventually loses track of the politics and social developments behind how ’90s youth declined.
We’re meant to be shocked and titillated by the biracial kid who boasts that he’ll “rape and kill one of his parents.” But the giveaway to Hill’s ignorance happens when hobbit-like Stevie asks the young African-American owner of a skateboarding emporium, “What are black people?” Race is often at the heart of American social dysfunction. Stevie earns the nickname “Sunburned” through his naïveté, but Hill confuses this with “brotherhood.” White hipsterism strikes again.
If pop music is the lingua franca of global youth, Mid90s misrepresents what it is that kids learn about each other (and the world) from pop music. At a moment of Stevie’s lonely mimickry, following behind a parade of older teen skateboarders along an LA freeway, Hill uses Morrissey’s evocative “We’ll Let You Know” (1992) primarily for the song’s melody, but this is a cheat: Morrissey’s violent, dreaming, and impatient soccer thugs (“It’s just the turnstiles that make us hostile”) don’t explicate the alienation and longings of American skateboarders. By cluelessly pairing it with someone of Stevie’s social background, Hill misses the song’s brilliance — how it expresses a subculture’s attempt to explain itself without fully understanding itself, yet with a vague sense of its place in history. Hill seems uninspired by the song’s power — Morrissey’s daring, empathetic expression of Britain’s white underclass.
On the album Your Arsenal, “We’ll Let You Know” led into “The National Front Disco,” Morrissey’s revelation of youth drawn to dangerous political movements (similar to Antifa, which our Left’s politicians refuse to scrutinize). Mid90s had a chance to explain how American youth fall for such inane social nostrums. Instead, it is nostalgic about this generation of cultural actors and how they first deceived themselves.