Just when you thought you were getting tired of ’80s nostalgia featuring kids on bikes, neon lights, and synth-pop, along come films filled with grunge music, skating, and Nintendo games. The ’90s don’t feel like they were that long ago, but the wave of ’90s nostalgia in movies and TV may have just arrived with Jonah Hill’s Mid90s. Hill’s directorial debut, Mid90s is the story of a 13-year-old kid who finally finds friends and a sense of belonging in the rough world of skateboarding in Los Angeles in the 1990s. We had a chat with the first-time director at Fantastic Fest after the movie’s US premiere, and he said despite the subject matter, he didn’t want to lean too heavily on nostalgia.
The first thing you notice about the film is how true-to-life it feels. From the squared, 4:3 VHS-like look, to the ’90s soundtrack, to the clothes, Mid90s doesn’t feel like a recreation, but like a lost film from that era. Despite this, it doesn’t point at its many references or shove them down your throat. “That was very intentional,” Hill said. “The rules of the film were no skate-porn and no nostalgia-porn. I didn’t want it to be that ’90s movie. The idea ultimately was that if I, at the last second, decided that the film would not be set in the ’90s, it would still work as a film about growing up.”
Yet there are plenty of references and Easter eggs to that decade. Shortly after the main character, Sunny, starts to become part of a group of skater kids, there’s a memorable scene in which he asks his brother for his skateboard. When the brother asks what Sunny can give in return, he offers his Nintendo games as trade, and we see Sunny’s brother going through a stack of cartridges. It’s a very small and simple scene, made special because we never see any of the games, just the sides of the cartridges. They could be any games–replace them in your imagination with whatever you grew up playing.
“I made sure that even if you don’t see the games, if you grew up at that time, you’d know which games they are,” Hill said. “Every one of those games are ones that I loved. I made sure they would place games that I’d play at that time. The wrong decision would be to punch in on it and focus on each game and make a big deal out of it. Instead, just hint at it so those who know, know they are the right games.”
This attitude of not making a big deal out of the references is key to making Mid90s feel natural. “My favorite scene in the movie is where two characters are outside a courthouse talking to a homeless guy,” Hill recalled. “That’s Del the Funky Homosapien, one of my favorite rappers, but it’s so casual you don’t really notice him. That was the point–to not make things overt.”
When it comes to the music, Mid90s has plenty of songs viewers can recognize, but you aren’t hit over the head with one hit wonders. Hill had a list of 300 songs he would write the film to, all of which made it onto the film’s “soundtrack.”
“We got all of the songs I listed,” he said. “Which was amazing because we didn’t really have any money for the music, so I wrote letters to like Morrissey and Nirvana’s estate and everybody. And they said yes,” Hill said. Spotify currently has a 30-song soundtrack available for streaming, and it’s been reported that more will arrive in additional “waves.”
Friendship and having a sense of belonging are big themes in Mid90s, and the film’s core cast of young actors, most of them first-timers, have great chemistry together. To achieve that, Jonah Hill did one simple thing. “I took everyone’s cell phones away,” he said. “That was actually my main reason to set the movie in the ’90s–because there weren’t cell phones. That made the intimate conversations and friendships in the movie real.”
“Nowadays the second you feel uncomfortable, you can just take out your phone, so you don’t get intimate with people,” Hill explained. “Growing up, you were so bored you’d get into these strangely deep conversations just waiting for the bus or hanging out at the skate spot only because you didn’t have anything better to do.”
Getting the actors into the ’90s vibe was obviously important to the film. Hill provided his cast with iPods with the 300 songs he wrote the music to, which he felt was important. “The most important part was getting the actors related to the feelings of the characters,” he said. “The music and the clothes helped in getting them to the mindset of the ’90s, but I didn’t want them to just rely on the gadgets and references. And they didn’t even need to understand them, because they are just existing as people and that’s just what’s around them. Because the film should feel like living in the ’90s–we didn’t go around pointing at every single piece of contemporary pop culture, it was just part of our world. My movie should feel like that.”
Mid90s is now out in theaters.