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Those Were the Days: How ‘Mid90s’ Makes Good on the Promise of Its Title

Coming-of-age movies set in the past—like Jonah Hill’s directorial debut, ‘American Graffiti,’ and ‘Dazed and Confused’—have become a filmmaking tradition

Dan Evans

While making Mid90s, Olan Prenatt realized that skateboarding with your friends used to be wildly different. For one thing, Instagram didn’t exist in 1995. “Now you go to a skate spot or a skate park [and] literally almost everybody in the area is just trying to film a clip on their phone,” the 22-year-old first-time actor told me. Twenty years ago, he added, “Everybody was just skating and sweating and talking mess with each other and just having fun.”

The mechanics of skating may have evolved, but what’s changed most is the feel. In his directorial debut, Jonah Hill, 34, recreates an atmosphere that has gradually gone extinct. This desire to portray the daily lives of young people during the decade of his upbringing resulted in a story that fits in a beloved genre: the coming-of-age movie set in the past.

Ever since George Lucas made 1973’s American Graffiti, the country has had an obsession with tales inspired by filmmakers’ own experiences growing up. Set in 1962 in his rock ’n’ roll and car-crazed hometown of Modesto, California, the director’s pre-Star Wars breakout sucked audiences into the days of his youth.

“I saw the beginning of the ’60s as a real transition in the culture because of the Vietnam War and all the things we were going through,” Lucas said in 2009, “and I wanted to make a movie about it.”

The best examples of these movies, however, don’t resonate because they deliver grand statements about how the nation is changing. They’re memorable because they show how characters subtly transform as the world shifts around them. Adolescence may be formative, but it’s not often earth-shatteringly eventful.

“The dramas are very small,” said Greg Mottola, 54, who wrote and directed 2009’s Adventureland, a dramatic comedy set at a Pittsburgh area amusement park in 1987, “but the emotions are large.”

Richard Linklater, the writer-director of ’70s teen classic Dazed and Confused (1993), had no interest in the contrived zaniness of typical high school comedies. Instead, he told The Daily Beast in 2013, “I wanted to capture the feeling of driving around, trying to be cool. It was tone and atmosphere. That’s what was churning around inside me. The mooood.”

The mooood can be generated only if the period-specific details—pop culture references, decor, clothes, language, music—are accurate. Mid90s, which follows Stevie, the 13-year-old son of a single mother who as a refuge starts to hang with group of skaters, is full of touchstones. From neon Super Soakers, to a Mobb Deep poster on the wall, to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comforter on Stevie’s bed, the dramatic comedy is a faithful representation of its titular era. It’s also catnip for me and others in my age range. After all, a coming-of-age film is at its most enticing when it’s about your own generation. This is why the genre lives on: Young directors like Hill will always will be drawn to it. In fact, the movie’s producer Eli Bush told me, the basic idea behind Mid90s was just that: “Let’s make one of these movies, with all the stuff from that era.”

Still, on the set of Mid90s, there was a rule: no nostalgia porn. Stevie plays Super Nintendo, for example, but its presence isn’t dwelled on too much. “It should be used like the way it would’ve been used in his life,” Bush said. “We didn’t hang on it.” Evocative touches should remain in the background lest the movie seem like a cartoonish version of the past.

When Tom Vaughan, 49, was adapting his friend David Nicholls’s novel Starter for 10 (2006), a 1985-set English comedy featuring James McAvoy, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Rebecca Hall, he made a point not to overdo the ’80s aesthetic.

“In the ’80s, not very much around me was from the ’80s,” the director said. “When you’re living through a time period, you’re actually living on the foundations and layers of all the eras that came before it. The only things that were ’80s in my childhood and when I went to university, would’ve been young people’s clothing, maybe some hairstyles, and the music. Everything else was ’70s, or ’60s, or before. And in the U.K., a long way before. If you go in full blast and you put everybody in the height of ’80s fashion, and you make every piece of furniture and every room they walk into completely dressed in the ’80s, that’s completely wrong.”

A scene from ‘Cooley High’
ABC

While shooting Cooley High (1975), set in Chicago’s Cabrini–Green Homes in 1964, director Michael Schultz wasn’t worried about authenticity. To him, life for African American kids in the projects was static. “The fact is, in the ghettos of America, at that point in time, there was not that much difference between the ’60s and the ’70s or the ’80s,” said Schultz, who lacked the budget to pay experienced actors save for Glynn Turman (Preach), Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs (Cochise), and Garrett Morris (Mr. Mason). “There was not that much upward mobility. So the kids really didn’t really have to do anything but be themselves. We just put them in the ’60s wardrobe and found a few ’60s cars and just stayed true to what was happening in the scene.”

There’s a reason the middle-class titular character in Greta Gerwig’s early 2000s-set Lady Bird (2017) doesn’t wear trendy outfits. Sacramento, where the writer-director grew up, wasn’t hip like L.A. or New York. If Lady Bird appeared in designer clothes in place of that well-worn, striped Gap sweater, it would’ve been like she was playing dress-up.

Mid90s takes great pains to avoids that pitfall. “It’s so easy to pull the trigger and to go all out with something but it’s hard to keep it real,” said Prenatt, whose character in the film goes by his nickname: Fuckshit. “Everything was so subtle.”

Turns out that keeping it real takes work. To give the movie the naturalistic feel of something shot in the ’90s, Hill filmed it with a Super 16 millimeter camera in 4:3, the same aspect ratio found on old box televisions. “When you saw dailies it was kind of a trip because it looked like skateboarding videos of the time,” said associate producer Aaron Meza, who would know. He directed a number of iconic ’90s skate videos.

Meza, the former editor-in-chief of Skateboarder Magazine, spent hours calibrating the movie’s look. He made sure that the boards and wheels the kids used were smaller than today’s models. Meza and costume director Heidi Bivens painstakingly assembled the cast’s wardrobe, going as far as dressing the oldest actors in only three brands that their characters likely would’ve stuck to in real life. Back then, skater fashion was muted. “It was a very homogenized era,” Meza said. “There weren’t a lot of peacocks.”

For Bush, seeing the teenagers on set temporarily trade in their skinny jeans for the comically baggy pants popular among skaters in the ’90s was jarring. It left the producer feeling really old.

If there’s one thing that all classic past-set coming-of-age movies have in common, it’s an unforgettable soundtrack. “They’re all cassette-tape-mix movies,” said Mottola, who also directed Superbad.

The examples of indelible music cues in these films are endless: Lady Bird listening to Dave Matthews Band’s “Crash Into Me” to get over a breakup; Oliver dancing to the Psychedelic Furs’ “Love My Way” in the 1983-set Call Me by Your Name (2017); the hungover, tour bus–riding rock stars in the 1973-set Almost Famous (2000) belting out Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer”; the teenagers in Dazed and Confused emptying their lockers to Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out”; Baby discovering what happens late at night in the staff quarters at Kellerman’s as the Contours’ “Do You Love Me” blares in the 1963-set Dirty Dancing (1987); and Teddy and Vern singing along to the Chordettes’ “Lollipop” in the 1959-set Stand by Me (1986).

Unsurprisingly, Mid90s is filled with songs by artists who towered over Hill’s own childhood. Making appearances: GZA, Morrissey, the Pharcyde, the Pixies, Souls of Mischief, and A Tribe Called Quest. Then there’s inclusion of a track by the biggest band of the ’90s. Naturally, Hill ignored the Nirvana hit that became ubiquitous enough to merit a “Weird Al” Yankovic parody and went with a haunting personal favorite that was never a rock radio staple.

“It should be kind of under the radar a little bit,” Bush said. “It was like, let’s not have ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit.’ But then we also don’t want to be looked at like total music assholes who just went for super obscure shit.”

A scene from ‘Dazed and Confused’
Gramercy Pictures

Clearing all those songs for use in an independent film wasn’t easy. Without a big music budget, Hill reached out to the artists he was seeking for the soundtrack and asked for permission. The routine isn’t uncommon.

When Mottola wanted to include the Replacements’ “Unsatisfied” in Adventureland, he wrote lead singer Paul Westerberg a letter in which he explained why the track was so important to him. “I was told through the grapevine that his hesitation was that the song’s really personal to him and he doesn’t know the context of how it’s being used,” Mottola said. The personal note worked. “He said OK after that,” said the director, who a few years earlier had pushed Sony Pictures to use Van Halen’s “Panama” in Superbad after Bill Hader improvised singing it on set. According to Mottola, the anthem cost the studio half a million dollars, more than double the music budget of Adventureland. “The only reason Sony let us do it,” he said, “is because the marketing people had started cutting the trailers to ‘Panama.’”

Vaughan was dying to use several songs by the Cure in Starter for 10, but never expected Robert Smith to approve them all. Luckily for the director, the lead singer was a fan of Nicholls’s book. At one point, Vaughan recalled, Smith was even considering composing the movie’s score. But in the end, Vaughan said, “He basically let us have his music for a great price. I put it all over the movie. He just totally came through for us.” Once Smith gave the thumbs up, other artists—Kate Bush, the Smiths, Tears for Fears—followed.

Schultz actually had an easy time pinning down the Cooley High soundtrack, which features the Four Tops,the Miracles, the Supremes, the Temptations, and Stevie Wonder. In the ’70s, most white filmmakers were ignoring the hit-making African American artists of the previous decade. “It was a time when nobody but the black audience valued Motown music,” Schultz said. So, he went to the label and asked to use 17 of its songs. “I got all that music for almost nothing,” said Schultz, who reportedly made Cooley High for $750,000. (The spectacular soundtrack had a hidden cost: By the time movies were being released en masse on VHS, the price of music rights had skyrocketed. As a result, it took years before a deal to clear the songs was made and Cooley High finally came out on video.)

Not all movie mix tapes, however, are complete. Linklater named his opus after a Led Zeppelin song, but the prickly band refused to allow him to include “Rock and Roll” in the film. Alas, the Dazed and Confused soundtrack album went double-platinum anyway.

The past-set-coming-of-age film is considered a stateside phenomenon, but its origins are likely found overseas. Lucas has claimed that Federico Fellini’s I Vitelloni (1953), which centers on five young and immature Italian men trying to figure out if there’s much for them beyond small-town life, at least partly inspired him to make American Graffiti.

When writer-director Barry Levinson told Mel Brooks about the idea that would become the hugely influential Diner (1982), a 1959-set, improvisational riff–loaded dramatic comedy about a quintet of 20-something buddies in Baltimore, the comedy legend reportedly mentioned that it sounded like I Vitelloni. “But I still haven’t seen the Fellini movie,” Levinson told The New York Times a month after the release of Diner, for which he received an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay.

Before starting production on Adventureland, Mottola gave a copy of the Italian movie to Ryan Reynolds, instructing him to, “Look at the way these guys are making decisions that are leading them nowhere. Look at how they behave.” Reynolds, who in Mottola’s film plays an adulterous amusement park maintenance man who’s less cool than everyone thinks he is, appreciated the gesture. “He really dug it,” Mottola said. “And he said it really helped the character make sense to him.”

Unprompted but wary of sounding pretentious, Bush told me that I Vitelloni also influenced Mid90s. “There’s sort of a group of guys on the precipice,” the producer said. Critics have compared Hill’s movie to Larry Clark’s bleak Kids (1995), but the first-time director has said that Mid90s is more optimistic than that. The only movie he showed the cast prior to filming was This Is England, a 1983-set drama about a troubled Midlands boy who joins a group of skinheads in hopes of finding meaningful friendship. Prenatt loved the movie. “It’s so raw,” he said.

For the most part, though, past-set-coming-of-age films still skew American. Vaughan believes that it’s no coincidence that Tom Hanks’s production company Playtone, and not a U.K. studio, optioned Starter for 10. “One of the issues of getting Starter for 10 made was not being able to point to many other British movies like it,” Vaughan said. In the U.S., he added, coming-of-age films are a tradition.

The genre has slowly diversified. Here are a few examples not helmed by and about straight white men: Now and Then (1995), Slums of Beverly Hills (1998), The Wood (1999), The Diary of a Teenage Girl (2015), 20th Century Women (2016), and Call Me by Your Name. But by and large, the film category hasn’t been terribly inclusive. In the ’70s, Schultz didn’t see many movies that portrayed what it was like being an African American teenager. “There wasn’t a void,” he said. “There was a chasm from here to Mars.” With Cooley High, which features an homage to another Fellini film, Amarcord (1973), his goal was pretty simple: “I wanted to do a movie that showed black kids that loved each other, but were kind of trapped in a situation that results in tragedy.” At the end of the film, which alternates between goofy and serious, Cochise is murdered. His fate is crushingly sad.

“Creating the fun and the bond between the kids was vitally important to point [out] the senseless death,” said Schultz, who sought to tell the world that a movie could be about black people and not race relations. “It was about kids going through their thing. If we were true to the essence of that, then it would cross over into anybody’s culture.”

Still, American International Pictures, the studio that financed Cooley High, didn’t know what to do with the movie. The company mostly made exploitation films. “Their marketing department said, ‘How do we sell this? There’s no T and A, there’s no violence,’” said Schultz, who capped the movie with title-screen explanations of where each character is in the future, a trope that American Graffiti made popular. “I said, ‘What do you mean? A guy gets killed at the end.’”

Cooley High went on to gross $13 million at the box office and influence a generation of black filmmakers. Schultz said that Francis Ford Coppola enjoyed the movie so much that he recommended it to Lucas. “He told George,” Schultz said, “‘I want you to come and see this movie that’s better than American Graffiti.’”

Cooley High wouldn’t have been possible without screenwriter Eric Monte, who attended the real Cooley Vocational High School in Chicago and based his script on events from his own childhood. Having a personal connection to the material isn’t a prerequisite for directors of past-set-coming-of-age movies, but it helps.

In Starter for 10, McAvoy plays a working-class teenager experiencing culture shock at college. That was once Vaughan. “This experience that Brian had of being completely lost, confused, and meeting all these posh, well-connected kinds of people, it’s very important for me to have lived through that,” he said, “so I could help the actors to live through that. Could I have done it without having had that experience? I don’t know.”

The scared petulance of Jesse Eisenberg’s Adventureland character came from Mottola, the director said. That was him at 22. The movie was his way of showing how mixed up he felt at that age. It’s a mood, he thinks, that American Graffiti got right. “It really nails the transitional moment of,” Mottola said, “‘I guess I have to decide who I am and who I’m gonna be or the world decides for me.’”

Mottola, who worked with Hill on Superbad, sees a similar ethos in Mid90s. “To commit to that level of naturalism and those rhythms and not panic and just fill it with a lot of goofy jokes or whatever to entertain or to be flashy takes a lot of nerve,” he said. “It’s obviously really funny. But underneath all the shitty young male behavior there’s these wounded kids who actually have good hearts. And I know Jonah’s like that. The reason he’s so great playing Seth in Superbad [is because] he was the only person who came in and read for that part who could convey the vulnerability and fear underneath that character, which explains why he just talked so much shit. It was all just protection.”

Mid90s isn’t autobiographical, but Hill’s sensibility seems to echo through the film. Like in most great past-set-coming-of-age movies, the protagonist, for whom the director quite clearly has great affection, painfully starts to grow up. “What’s really touching about it,” Mottola said, “is that this kid is actually able to make connections to these friends that for whatever reasons he can’t make in his family.”

The bond on set was real. By the time the production wrapped, Prenatt said that he had “gained a family and friendships.” When he went to a skate park for the first time after filming, he noticed that everyone seemed to be shooting video on their phones. At that moment, he began longing for an era that he’d lived through only in a movie.

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