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TIFF 2018: Mid90s, Her Smell

At times, Jonah Hill’s directorial debut “Mid90s” feels like a studious attempt in not screwing up an opportunity. Following the coming-of-age of shy observer Stevie (Sunny Suljic) as he befriends a group of skaters—leader Ray (Na-Kel Smith), party animal Fuckshit (Olan Prenatt), bottom-of-the-pecking order Ruben (Gio Galicia), and filmmaker Fourth Grade (Ryder McLaughlin)—“Mid90s” is a solid film that frequently tries too hard to be modest and unassuming. Hill wants to evoke the laidback style of Larry Clark’s "Kids," as tied with the contained formalism of early Scorsese, but it often comes across as a belabored attempt to capture the meandering, aimless nature of hanging out. When “Mid90s” eventually tries to tie up the loose ends previously designed to remain loose, you can see the clumsy attempts to conceal the seams that keep Hill’s film together.

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However, when Hill relaxes and “Mid90s” just observes the gang of friends, the film reaches a Linklaterian ideal that’s admittedly difficult to achieve. The scenes of talking shit and skateboarding that aren’t tied to a narrative function are funny and honest, and I suppose it counts as an act of bravery that Hill isn’t afraid to portray how these kids would actually talk in the year 2018, i.e. they say “faggot” constantly. All of the performances are stellar, with a special shout-out to Lucas Hedges who plays Stevie’s asshole older brother and nails the behavior of a bully hiding behind a thin veneer of strength. 

There’s a lot to admire here even if it’s housed in a shoddy frame: The period detail (clothes, posters, vernacular, etc.) is mostly on point. The soundtrack is full of canon favorites (Hill clearly had an enormous music budget), and while one can expect tracks from many obvious, great artists of the era, I appreciated that Hill employed a Bad Brains track that felt somewhat out of place from everything else. 

What Hill really nails is the complicated dynamics of hanging out with a group of older kids when you’re way too young to hang. When Stevie first approaches the group in the skate shop where they work, he just watches them, absorbing their wisdom and bullshit. But when he’s tasked to fill up a jug of water, he jumps at the opportunity because it means he’s beginning to belong. His earnest, self-effacing nature organically allows him to ingratiate into the group, as well as his willingness to sustain injury skateboarding, despite the enormous gap in experience between him and the rest of them. It’s rare you see a film about kids threading that line between trying to be cool and acting like they’re not trying at all without undue judgment on the part of the writer/director. The best thing I can say about “Mid90s” is that Hill gets what it means to want to be cool. It’s ironic that this is his debut’s greatest liability.

Since “Her Smell” is written and directed by Alex Ross Perry, I’m obligated to begin my very positive review with a few caveats: 1.) Its abrasive style and caustic dialogue, part and parcel with Perry’s filmography, will not appeal to everyone; 2.) The film's first hour, which features plenty of shrill, obnoxious bad behavior, will test the patience of many, as it did plenty of the audience who attended my Press & Industry screening Monday afternoon; 3.) Even if you’re familiar with Perry’s work, it’s possible that watching rock star assholery propelled by severe substance abuse might not be your bag.

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With that said, “Her Smell” bowled me over in a completely unexpected way. Though I’ve seen Perry’s entire filmography save for his 2009 debut “Impolex,” I’m not exactly the biggest fan of his work. Most of his films have left me cold or merely curious, with the notable exception of “Listen Up Philip,” which still feels like a potent exploration of a certain strain of male pathology. But “Her Smell” features Perry in a different mode than before, submerging his audience into the noxious psychology of his main subject Becky Something (Elisabeth Moss, her best non-“Mad Men” performance by an enormous margin), riot grrrl rock frontwoman of the band Something She, as she falls hard from grace, before bringing them up for air to witness her redemption. Rest assured, there’s plenty of casual cruelty and inflicted pain befitting his style, but there’s also a gentle kindness that he hasn’t exhibited before. “Her Smell” not only illustrates Becky’s sickness but radiates with sympathy for her condition and hope for her recovery.

Perry’s film is split into five acts, broken up by home video footage of Something She at work. The first three feature Becky as she spirals into addled mania, aided by booze, drugs, and a fraud of a shaman that only feeds her paranoia. Her bandmates (Agyness Deyn and Gayle Rankin, both very funny) are through with her self-destructive behavior and poor musicianship, while her ex-husband Danny (Dan Stevens) merely wants her to take some responsibility for their child. Something She’s manager Howard (Eric Stoltz) desperately tries to keep everyone happy and everything on schedule to no avail. Becky is headed for a deep, deep bottom and no one can stop her until she finally hits it. 

Rest assured, these three acts, which constitute the first hour, could potentially grate on those who are unprepared to watch a turned-up-to-11 emotional hurricane. It helps that a lot of it is funny, both the behavior witnessed from afar and the dialogue, which has a song-like rhythm. Plus, unlike Perry’s other films, in which his characters’ cruelty feel like an ingrained, sober personality trait, here it’s definitely the product of addiction. It’s difficult to make much of a strong moral judgment on people who are acting on behalf of their disease, even when it’s irritating at best and violent at worst.

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Perry’s filmic style gets its best workout in “Her Smell,” with his frequent use of extreme close-ups employed to great effect, capturing the pain and excitement of artists living on the very edge of sanity. “Her Smell” is a true rock ‘n’ roll film, and it understands that selfish, destructive behavior is not only a part of the persona, but also a part of the fun. Perry structures the film’s acts like suites, containing different movements that function in various emotional registers in order to demonstrate how and why Becky is exciting and dangerous. She’s a magnetic presence until she becomes a problem for anyone within five feet of her.

The film’s last two acts shouldn’t be described in detail, but suffice it to say they feature Perry working in a softer, more understanding mode, and the results are quite moving. I’m a sucker for redemption narratives, and watching Becky do the work to crawl out of the gutter despite no guarantee of success, let alone fame, really struck a chord with me. All of the music featured in “Her Smell” is fantastic, covers and originals alike, but the film’s final musical sequence had me in tears because it really does feel like a hard won victory after a long journey through hell. This isn’t an easy film, but if you’re on its wavelength, it contains numerous, immeasurable pleasures. 

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