Tuesday, 23 April 2019

We need to talk about sex in Mid90s

Not enough has been written on sex in Jonah Hill’s directorial debut Mid90s, which frankly worries me.

Hill has received mild praise for his first work as a director and writer. For sure, Mid90s is a stylish package; filmed in 16mm, sunny LA, 90s nostalgia that is so well fitted for the millennial hipsters. The film tells about Stevie (Sunny Suljic), a young boy aged 13 according to the press material although his age is never confirmed in the film. Having worked as a camp counsellor with boys around the age, I absolutely believe the character age to be correct. The actor Sunny Suljic was even younger during the filming, as he was eleven at the time. Stevie looks for acceptance from his violent older brother (Lucas Hedges) and eventually finds his place with group of older skater boys (Gio Galicia, Na-Kel Smith, Olan Prenatt, Ryder McLaughlin).

Stevie is quiet and kind, but the influence of the older friends (and puberty) makes him follow their lead; cursing, drinking, smoking, taking risks. The mishaps on the way highlight that yes, this is it, this is what we mean by toxic masculinity. But where difficulties of growing up are touched on, they are never really explored in detail. In the end, everything is well again. Lessons learned? Maybe. We do not know either way.

On a Friday night, at least my fellow audience members did not seem to find social critique in the film. Everyone seemed to expect an easy watch, and that’s what they got out of it. Millennial friend groups and couples were laughing while I was cringing and feeling uncomfortable. After all, laughter is what you look for from a nostalgic visit to your childhood, offered by a comedic figure of your youth. 

The worst and most problematic part of the film was a scene at a house party where Stevie ends up with his mates. After a lot of drinking one of the girls (Alexa Demie) starts talking to Stevie. It’s already very uncomfortable – she is probably around the age of Stevie’s friends so about 16-17. There is a huge difference between a girl that age and a 13-year-old boy. She is flirty (I hear laugher in the audience). But of course, that’s not where it ends. She takes his hand and leads him to the host’s room, asks him to take her clothes off. “Don’t be nervous.” They kiss. At this point I had to close my eyes.

Now, all this seemed to have the intention to be uncomfortable. Music is tense. The room is dark. The boy nervous and the girl initiates the action so clearly that yes, it could not hardly be called anything but a statutory rape. But Jonah Hill himself says in a review for Slate:

“The point that this kid is terrified and shaking during his first sexual experience. And we get to see that as the audience. And he only gets happy and excited once he realizes it’s his currency to raise up through the group. And that’s a fucked-up lesson that a lot of people now are having to unlearn from this time period. And to me, I just wanted to show how that was and let the audience see that for what it is. Because at the end of the day, I’m not a moralist. I respect the audience too much to tell them what to think. That’s what I observed and tried to share.

We return to the problem of the film not stating these things as issues very clearly. When Stevie walks out of the room, people in the audience are laughing again. When his friends congratulate him, Stevie boosts with pride about his sexual experience. He was not comfortable during the act but he got respect from his friends. The negative effects are left in the dark, only momentarily expressed in the room where it happens. The observation might be true, but won’t cut under the surface.

In the end, the storytelling just felt a bit clumsy. Potential to highlight difficulties is missed out – and boys will still be boys.

Recommended further reading: Roxana Hadadi’s article covers the same issue and the treatment of women in the film on general.