Starring: Sunny Suljic, Lucas Hedges, Katherine Waterson
Directed by: Jonah Hill (debut)
Written by: Jonah Hill (debut)
It looks like two-time Academy Award-nominated actor and first-time writer/director Jonah Hill (“Moneyball”) has picked up a few tricks during his 14-year career from some of the top-tier filmmakers he’s worked with, including Bennett Miller, Martin Scorsese and Joel and Ethan Coen. In his admirable directorial debut “Mid90s,” Hill proves he’s operating from a place of purity, compassion and meaningful emotion.
In a way, “Mid90s” is the spiritual successor to Larry Clark’s controversial 1995 indie film “Kids,” although not nearly as provocative (at least by today’s standards). Hill has crafted a lived-in world where his young characters — most of them teenage boys — feel like they are the kings of their own destiny. From the perspective of a child, it’s not as captivating or unique as films like “The Florida Project,” “Where the Wild Things Are” or “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” but Hill has tapped into a specific time and location worthy of thoughtful exploration.
Set in Los Angeles in the, well, mid-’90s, Hill introduces us to his crew led by actor Sunny Suljic (“The Killing of a Sacred Deer”) in what will undoubtedly be considered his breakout role in years to come. Suljic stars as Stevie, an undersized 13-year-old kid in search of his own identity and reputation.
Stevie’s home life is bearable, although he’d probably like it more if his aggressive older brother Ian (Lucas Hedges) would stop beating the hell out of him. Their single mother (Katherine Waterson) is loving, but gives them the freedom to do as they please. That independence leads Stevie to a local skate shop where he finds solace hanging around with the teens who frequent (or work at) the store.
The young men — aspiring skateboard pro Ray (Na-kel Smith), jealous Ruben (Gio Galicia), aspiring filmmaker “Fourth Grade” (Ryder McLaughlin) and scene-stealing slacker “Fuckshit” (Olan Prenatt) — take a liking to Stevie, who starts skateboarding with them. “Mid90s” is a plotless film, so we spend most of the time observing the guys as they skate, smoke weed, drink beer, insult each other and talk about what they want to do with their lives and why they like skating. It’s a shifting dynamic that is authentic and, occasionally, deeply moving.
As far as coming-of-age films go, “Mid90s” isn’t groundbreaking, but the impression that Hill is connected to the material in an intimate way is strong. He knows these kids’ lives and doesn’t settle for the easy route by diluting the narrative with nostalgia-heavy scenes or an overshadowing soundtrack. In “Mid90s,” Hill wants us to empathize with these boys. We’re all the better for him allowing us to do just that.