Updated: Dec 31, 2020
Jonah Hill’s directorial debut, Mid90s, was a love letter to just that—the laidback, teen-spirited Americana in which the director himself came of age. 13-year-old Stevie bikes lazily down suburban Westside, gapes at hip-hop posters plastered in his older brother’s bedroom, and dons a Street Fighter t-shirt as he sulks before a boxy TV, PS1 controller in hand. Wide shots on grainy 16mm film evoke a sense of naturalism and nostalgia, almost as if the film was shot on Fourth Grade’s camcorder itself.
Viewers act as the young boy’s only supervision: observing Stevie traipsing through his teal-brown hometown. Los Angeles sunsets and traffic lights are underscored by chart-toppers of Big L, Wu-Tang, and Lost Boyz. Expletives dot the everyday dialogue of Stevie’s older skater friends the way Hill peppers the screen with tributes to millennials his own age—snapbacks, beanies, saggy jeans, baggy tees, and a cheesy fright mask of Bill Clinton.
It’s the ultimate feast for eyes and ears; a refreshing tribute to the childhood and adolescence of so many moviegoers today. The screen is treated with such care that one can’t help but think, man, Jonah Hill really loves the ‘90s. Tiptoeing the line between nostalgic and tacky, the LA native knows he’s got one shot at penning this love letter, and he crams it full of everything he’s ever loved about SoCal suburbia. In spite of the cast’s carefree attitudes, every still is as carefully curated and manufactured as an impressionist painting—from graffiti etched into bathroom walls to the low camera angles reminiscent of shaky skateboarding videos, the details are so diminutive yet so deliberate.
It’s a new form of California impressionism, centered on teenagers, not landscapes, but still an imitation of life in all shades of muted cerulean, sap green, and golden ochre—and it’s most notable in A24 films.
Since 2013, the company (which produced Mid90s) has amassed a small collection of the genre “coming-of-age-in-California.” From Sacramento to Santa Barbara to Calabasas, each film in this collection tries its hand at realism and fails, perhaps deliberately, with the Golden State as its backdrop.
Sofia Coppola’s 2013 The Bling Ring takes its name from a real-life gang of teenage burglars in the late 2000s, while Mike Mills’s 20th Century Women (2016) was based in part on his 1970s childhood. And Lady Bird, Greta Gerwig’s 2017 directorial debut, was also set in the director’s hometown (during her senior year, to be exact).
Though the first is a satirical take on the materialism of teens, all three are meant to be a reflection of real life. Look closer, however, and you’ll see overexposure to glints of sunshine, adolescent myopia, and tasteful color palettes. Settings and characters end up overembellished with the angst and nostalgia their directors have come to love. With the exception of Coppola, all other A24 films featuring teens in California take at least some inspiration from the director’s life and are always set in their hometown. And, across the board, all four of these films feature awkward silence, free of music or dialogue, loving stills of local scenery, and frank narratives on the cusp of figuring themselves out. It’s a love letter, time and time again, to the still suburbia of California, to the ambiguity of adolescence, and to the playlists and mixtapes underscoring it all.
And most importantly, it takes a kid from California to get that letter just right.