Are We Living in a Golden Age of '90s Period Films?
It’s 2019, and the video store is a relic. Blockbuster, once a towering VHS empire with stores on six continents, has shriveled to the point of just one surviving store in the world. Tell a friend you’re going to the store to rent a video, and they’ll look at you like you just whipped out a 19th-century Gramophone.
But on the big screen, the video store is alive and well. Thriving, even. Captain Marvel boasts a prominent scene in which Brie Larson crash-lands in a darkened Blockbuster, dusting herself off amidst VHS copies of Hook and The Right Stuff. In Mid90s, Jonah Hill’s recent directorial debut, the young protagonist’s mom declares, “It’s Saturday. Blockbuster night!” Both I, Tonya and Climax, the harrowing new dance-troupe nightmare from filmmaker Gaspar Noé, have scenes that utilize grainy VHS aesthetics designed to mimic old-school videotapes.
Welcome to the golden age of the mid-’90s period film. All of the aforementioned movies take place somewhere between 1993 and 1996—and they aren’t the only ones. In 2017, there was Gillian Robespierre’s Landline, a sharply funny sister comedy set among the phone booths and faded jeans of Giuliani’s New York, and Sandy Wexler, a straight-to-Netflix offering in which Adam Sandler plays a talent manager in ’90s Hollywood. These days, you can’t throw a Discman without hitting some new movie set in the age of Alanis Morissette.
On one level, the trend signifies the passage of time: We are now so far removed from the 20th century that the ’90s Period Piece is a genre unto itself. Placing a character in 1995 is like dropping her on a distant planet. On the other, these films can ensconce 30- or 40-something viewers in a comforting cocoon of nostalgia. Captain Marvel, set in 1995, certainly does. Larson, as the titular superhero, spends much of the movie wearing a Nine Inch Nails t-shirt as she navigates computer cafes and CD-ROMs. The soundtrack digs about as deep as a ’90s-themed party playlist, with requisite musical cues from R.E.M., TLC, Nirvana, and No Doubt. Mid90s, by contrast, captures the era with such startling specificity you can almost smell the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles sheets.
Why are filmmakers so fixated on the ’90s? Why now? The simplest explanation is that filmmakers who came of age in the ’90s are now old enough to make films reflecting on their youth. “Mid90s was a story that meant something to me in the time period I grew up,” Hill told me when I interviewed him for Newsweek last year. “If I look at movies like Dazed and Confused or Diner, there's usually a 20-year kind of clock where people have the time and perspective to look back.”
Hill has a point here: Cultural nostalgia seems to travel in roughly 20-year cycles. For example, look at the actual ’90s. Many significant pieces of pop culture from that decade looked back on the 1970s, either with gritty intrigue or nostalgia-tinted goggles. There was Dazed and Confused (set in 1976), Casino (set from 1973–1983), Boogie Nights (set from 1977–1984), Forrest Gump (set all over the damn place), Jackie Brown (a tribute to ’70s blaxploitation films), and That ’70s Show. No coincidence, then, that the revival of Star Wars arrived about two decades after the original film. (During the actual 1970s, of course, pop culture was busy romanticizing the ’50s: See Grease, or Happy Days.)
Meanwhile, rampant ’80s nostalgia reached a fever pitch during the 2000s. An atrocious song called “1985”—about a woman who can’t let go of her ’80s glory days—dominated the radio in 2004. Several years later, Journey’s 1981 anthem “Don't Stop Believin'” belatedly became a cultural sensation, aided by its prominence in both The Sopranos and Family Guy. (Prince also enjoyed a career resurgence around this time.) Films like 13 Going on 30 (set partially in 1987), Donnie Darko (set in 1988), Adventureland (set in 1987), and The Squid and the Whale (set circa mid-1980s) tried to make sense of the 1980s. If this cycle holds, we can look forward to a big bubbling-up of 2010s nostalgia during the 2030s. (Hey, it all seemed so innocent in those days before Antarctica melted.)
But when it comes to plot, there are practical reasons today’s filmmakers are attracted to the ’90s: It’s a convenient way to depict young people without having to flood the screen with social media and iPhones. In Landline, for instance, there’s a funny scene in which Dana (Jenny Slate) listens to her voicemails at a pay phone, reacting with increasingly pained expressions. The scene simply wouldn’t work if the character owned a cell phone. “My co-writer and I both grew up in New York City in the '90s,” says Robespierre. “It just naturally became a period piece. It gave us the freedom to tell a story without having to have an insert shot of an iPhone, an insert shot of someone on their computer...”
This was part of Hill’s thinking, too. “The only reason to set [Mid90s] in the mid-'90s was because there were no phones,” he told me in October, recalling his own teen years: “We were skating around and waiting for the bus or just talking—we didn't have gadgets to break away from that connection.”
And in Climax—which is less a coming-of-age comedy than a psychosexual panic attack—the presence of cell phones would directly interfere with the film’s mounting sense of claustrophobia and loss of control. The film depicts a French dance troupe whose members descend into violence and chaos after they unknowingly consume alcohol laced with LSD. It takes place during one night in 1996. Noé knew he needed to set it in the past.
“If the story was updated to present time, there would be a lot of people using their iPhones,” the director tells me. “I don’t like movies with smartphones or cell phones. They end up doing close-ups of something that is extremely un-cinematic.” He cites a recent movie about the 2011 Norwegian massacre as an example: too much texting. “I don't think cell phones or computers are very cinematic like people dancing or people fighting is,” he says. (Note: If this filmmaking theory has an antithesis, it’s embodied by Eighth Grade, a stellar coming-of-age film that’s fully situated in the modern world of glowing screens.)
Noé does not seem particularly aware of other new films set in the ’90s. “No, no, no,” he says in his French accent when I ask if he’s seen Captain Marvel. “I’m not a big fan of the superhero movies.” But he understands the impulse. Eighth Grade is set in present-day, but may not feel like the present to viewers of the future. “The communication tools are going to change a lot in the next 10 years,” Noé insists. “If you want to do a timeless movie, it's better to do it in the ’90s than today.”
Mid90s and Landline epitomize the most popular approach to the ’90s Period Piece. Let’s call it the Mid-’90s Period Piece Coming-of-Age Story Set in Clinton’s America (“MNPPCOASSICA” for short). The former film is a love letter to L.A. skater culture, while the latter takes place in the apartments and streets of Manhattan before it became a sea of Starbucks and Chase banks. In both films, a teenage character navigates friendship, family turmoil, and early sexual experiences in or around 1995. Also, both films contain some autobiographical elements—their respective directors grew up in these respective cities at the same time as their characters. (Let’s go ahead and include Lady Bird in this coming-of-age genre, even though it’s technically set in 2002 and has the requisite post-9/11 dread to prove it.)
The spiritual ancestor of the MNPPCOASSICA is a film called The Wackness, which predicted the ’90s trend a whole decade ago. Remember The Wackness? Josh Peck starred as Luke, a rap-obsessed teen roaming around New York, selling weed and catching feelings, in 1994. Reviews were mixed, but The Wackness does boast a stellar hip-hop soundtrack and memorably bizarre Ben Kingsley performance as the pothead therapist.
“I had a feeling it would be an era that would be explored in film,” says filmmaker Jonathan Levine, who wrote The Wackness inspired by his own youth. “I felt a sense of urgency to be the first one out of the box, because it was such an interesting time culturally. It was one of the last times people were experiencing culture in a communal way. The internet was soon to become a major thing—it starts to splinter communal experience.”
Music is big in The Wackness. Luke carries around handmade mixtapes, and the soundtrack celebrates ’90s rap gems by Nas, A Tribe Called Quest, and Raekwon. Nearly every subsequent ’90s Period Piece heavily uses music to evoke the period. Mid90s is similarly steeped in hip-hop, though it also makes ingenious use of Nirvana’s “Where Did You Sleep Last Night.” Landline leans towards indie-rock: The teen character, Ali, has a Yo La Tengo poster and dances around the house to a PJ Harvey classic. Climax uses ’90s techno, including tracks by Daft Punk and Aphex Twin, as a near-constant throbbing pulse. Beware anachronisms: Sandy Wexler recreates the Tower Records storefront, which is somehow advertising 1995’s Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness despite the scene being set in 1994.
In most cases, the objective of the ’90s Period Piece is to situate its narrative in a simpler and more innocent time—or at least one likely to be regarded as such by millennial and Gen-X viewers. Doesn’t it feel nice to revisit a time before 9/11, before the White House was occupied by a xenophobic reality TV star, before our social lives were reliant on the willing transfer of vast personal data to massively powerful tech companies? A time when school shootings were still rare enough to be shocking?
For Robespierre, this meant a chance to recreate the New York of her youth. For instance, she shot a scene in her favorite record store, Other Music, just before it closed for good. “We did not want to make it like a VH1 I Love the '90s special,” Robespierre says. In other words, the ’90s was meant as a backdrop—not a gimmick. “But it was still fun to recreate my childhood bedroom and have our characters watching public-access in the ’90s, and VHS tapes and rowing machines and dot matrix printer paper. All those things are long gone and exchanged for our tiny little computers.”
“It's more of a gentler time,” says screenwriter Paul Sado, who co-wrote Sandy Wexler with Adam Sandler. “There’s something about the 21st century that’s doused with a little more cynicism.” While Mid90s relies on music and fashion to evoke the decade, Wexler uses an endless parade of cameos (David Spade, Pauly Shore) and a visual backdrop of retro billboards and newsstands. Sandler plays a dopey but lovable talent manager bumbling his way through ’90s Hollywood. There’s a coy layer of irony here: The real Sandler was enormously successful during this era. Still, it’s telling that Sandler’s ’90s Period Piece inhabits the show business world of Hollywood while Jonah Hill’s focuses on adolescence. Filmmakers are depicting the decade as they lived it.
“We really wanted it to be soulful and heartfelt,” Sado adds. “There’s just something about the chaos of the present that doesn’t allow for that.”
Yet there was chaos in the ’90s, too. Running counter to the ’90s Period Piece is a very different trend, of documentaries and podcasts revisiting the decade’s most surreal scandals through contemporary lens. Consider Leaving Neverland, Lorena, or the Slow Burn podcast that dedicated a season to Bill Clinton’s impeachment. These are examples of what Slate’s Willa Paskin recently called “a series of works that force us to reconsider the past, and the excuses we’ve made to avoid it.” Importantly, they challenge fictitious depictions of the ’90s as some idyllic, uncomplicated wonderland. It was also a decade in which we failed Monica Lewinsky, failed to confront child abuse and workplace harassment.
I, Tonya, a darkly funny dramatization of Tonya Harding’s 1994 downfall, is the only narrative film in this category. Maybe that’s why, aside from the hideous haircuts, the movie is almost totally devoid of ’90s nostalgia. Even the soundtrack is mostly culled from classic rock, as if suggesting the story is too universal to pin down.
Climax, meanwhile, is the rare ’90s Period Piece that swaps out fuzzy nostalgia for outright despair. “We always have this idea that the world in which we grew up is the normal one,” Noé tells me. But he was already in his 30s by the mid-’90s, and his body of work subverts normality as a matter of course. Noé doesn’t have much interest in sunny depictions of the past. “You can be nostalgic because, in the ’90s, people were dancing to Michael Jackson. Everything seemed happy and normal,” the filmmaker says. He lets out a dark laugh. “Now we know.”
This story originally appeared on Esquire.com. Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.