(USA, 84 min.)
Written and directed by Jonah Hill
Starring: Sunny Suljic, Na-Kel Smith, Olan Prenatt, Gio Galicia, Ryder McLaughlin, Lucas Hedges, Katherine Waterston
Bradley Cooper isn’t the only actor who can direct! Superbad and Wolf of Wall Street star Jonah Hill makes a respectable feature debut as a director with Mid90s. While Mid90s isn’t the out of the park grand slam of Cooper’s A Star is Born, complete with fireworks and somersaulting cheerleaders, Hill’s flick bats a solid triple and lands a hot dog on the side. Hill crafts a goofy, tough, and surprisingly sweet coming of age story in Mid90s.
One could call Mid90s Hill’s Lady Bird, but Hill flips the 'Bird to the makeshift skate parks of Los Angeles and blasts hip-hop like A Tribe Called Quest, rather than taking place in Sacramento to the tunes of Dave Matthews Band. Mid90s comes from a very specific place from the director's experience and everything translates strongly to build a world and put audiences in the head of its young lead. The misfit in this case is Stevie, played by The Killing of a Sacred Deer’s Sunny Suljic, who finds himself in need of friends when his older brother (Lucas Hedges) is horribly abusive at home and the kids at school don’t give him much notice. Stevie takes an interest in some older boys who meet at the local skateboard shop. There’s Ray (Na-Kel Smith), who has moves to make it as a professional; the endearingly named “Fuckshit” (Olan Prenatt), who sports a potty mouth and hair like Sheryl Crow (Hill’s joke, not mine); “Fourth Grade” (Ryder McLaughlin), always filming the group through his retro camcorder; and Ruben (Gio Galicia), a troubled boy escaping problems back home.
The older boys don’t mind Stevie’s inquisitive take on their hobby—if anything, they welcome it—and they recognize themselves in him, particularly Ray, and welcome him into their group. They nickname Stevie “Sunburn” when he coolly makes a save when asked if Black people get sunburns. His response? “What are Black people?” This kid’s found people who get him, and Hill and the actors create a strong sense of community within the group.
Stevie’s confidence soars with this group of friends and his behaviour becomes increasingly rebellious. He makes some risky moves to prove that he’s no chicken, and nearly kills himself while doing so, and eventually dabbles in drinking and drugs to ensure that the group accepts him. Hill’s pretty bold in depicting underage drinking and substance abuse honestly, showing the effects of the teens’ domestic lives on their behaviour as some of them, like Fuckshit and Ruben, take to the sauce a bit hard to escape the problems back home. At the same time, Ray takes Stevie under his wing like a little brother, becoming his watchful protector as Smith and Suljic develop a natural relationship as the boys become like surrogate siblings.
Mid90s bears a strong resemblance to one of this year’s other coming of age skateboarding movies, Bing Liu’s extraordinary documentary Minding the Gap. Both films follow groups of young male adolescents as they bond over skateboarding and find wondrous freedom in the thrill of weaving in and out of traffic on their boards or sailing through vacant lots and construction sites. Mid90s and Minding the Gap both intelligently work the socio-economic elements of the boys’ situations into the fabric of their respective narratives, using the skate park as a forum to explore the dynamics of race, class, poverty, and privilege that distinguish the boys from another even as skateboarding draws them together.
They’re also both rooted in the power of moviemaking and self-expression. Mid90s features Fourth Grade recording the gang through his crappy analogue camcorder, taping their hijinks 24/7 while finding his voice behind the camera. The same goes for Liu in Minding the Gap, who is omnipresent as a cinematographer, director, and subject of his film, gliding alongside his friends while interrogating them about their hopes and fears on the side. Audiences can debate whether Stevie or Fourth Grade is the stand-in for Hill, but either way, Mid90s provides an outlet for his voice and experiences into an accessible and enjoyable film with the power to bring audiences into the lives of youths they might have easily misunderstood.
Hill, like Liu, seems to be a natural behind the camera. His sense of humor translates well to his direction and the young actors carry themselves confidently. (Oddly, the only performance that doesn’t really work is Katherine Waterston’s shrill turn as Stevie’s mother.) Hill also brings a slick aesthetic to Mid90s shooting the picture in the aspect ratio of a full frame VHS tape that reminds viewers of the glory days when distributors simply hacked the edges off a film’s widescreen print so that they could fit the square shapes of standard definition TVs. He even throws in some scratch marks and noise for good measure.
Mid90s is a fun dive into the world of pre-Y2K adolescence, a time when Seal’s “Fly Like an Eagle” anthem from Space Jam played on the airwaves unironically, when kids still carried around a Discman and CDs, and not a single teenager carried a phone. The film has a great sense of time and place, and a genuine appreciation for the seemingly mundane elements of culture that shape a person’s life. Those were the good days and Hill does a fantastic job of transporting the audience back to the mid-90s without making the film an exercise in empty nostalgia.
Mid90s opens in theatres Oct. 26.