Seemingly out of nowhere, a little movie about a kid coming of age in the ‘mid90s’ southern California skater subculture previewed, evoking a nostalgia for all those of a certain age who could relate to its smattering of hip-hop and punk/grunge samples, as well as its low-key vibe. Then at the end of the preview, the words ‘written and directed by jonah hill’ unceremoniously pop on screen – what appeared to audiences as an out of left field release, was actually a four year labor of love for the one time comedic, now most times dramatic actor Jonah Hill, who is also of that same certain age. It seems like every decade has its time-capsule capture on film by a notable writer/director, from George Lucas’s 50s-set, 70s-produced ‘American Graffitti’ to Richard Linklater’s 70s-set, 90s-produced ‘Dazed & Confused’. While Hill makes a valiant attempt to do so right out of the gate in the 10s with his first writing/directing effort, ‘mid90s’ does not quite meet the classic status of those two masterful hangs.
Hill’s movie centers on 13-year-old Stevie (Sunny Suljic bearing the weight of the picture) as he inserts himself and navigates through the male teenage group dynamics revolving around the distinct hip-hop, punk fueled world of skating culture in the 1990s. At the same time he is also dealing with an abusive older brother and a struggling single mother who had her first son young. These two characters are played by the only familiar faces in the film, Lucas Hedges (‘Manchester by the Sea’) and Katherine Waterston (‘Fantastic Beasts’) to varying degrees of effectiveness, with Hedges losing himself in the damaged Ian, and Waterston not as convincing as their harried mom. The rest of the parts are fully embodied by non-actors who display serious chops even though they were cast based on their skating ability. In particular, professional skater Na-kel Smith is a revelation as Ray, the rightful alpha of the group whose aspirations are much higher than the others. Smith’s skating skills are showcased throughout the movie with an uncanny smoothness, as he glides through astounding tricks and leisurely rides, but what’s most surprising is his poignant delivery of his lines and an irresistible natural charisma that supports the desire for those around him to both crave his approval and get angered by his neglect. Stevie’s desire for acceptance and descent into this culture that can (and does) cause him serious harm, seems to be at odds with his initial sweet nature, but based on his home life, it makes sense that he desires and finds his own tribe.
Like many others in his profession, Jonah Hill uses his past experiences with various filmmakers, some personal history, and his familiarity with sets from an acting perspective to craft a confident, interesting, if meandering first feature. It’s hard to say whether or not he can be as successful with material that he is not so intimately familiar with, but the choices he makes for ‘mid90s’ work really well, if the end product is somewhat slight. Hill’s focus is on his young actors and non-actors, coaxing legitimate performances out of them that take full advantage of their talents and personalities, ending up with characters that feel real. The camera work is spare and compelling, from long takes of hallways and streets with a static lens, to more handheld tracking of the action, whether skating or navigating parties and groups of teens, all in a square 1.33:1 format that evokes the cheap skating videos being emulated. Hill revels in capturing moments spending minutes in silence connecting two characters, like the zen-like scene where Ray prepares Stevie’s new board, and various still exchanges between Stevie and his brother when he’s not pummeling him in jarring violent bursts. As a result, in addition to the fact that the movie is essentially plotless, it drags despite its short runtime. Thankfully the soundtrack, fueled by a combination of a few tracks by first rate composers Trent Reznor (NIN) and Atticus Ross (oscar winners for ‘The Social Network’), classic 90s hip-hop (shout-out to the GZA, Mobb Deep, The Pharcyde, and more) and alternative (Pixies, Morrisey) tracks, and samples from various time periods, provides some of the emotional heft and overall vibe. It’s hard to say if ‘mid90s’ will have the same impact on a younger generation in conveying what it was like as a teen in that distinct time period because it narrowly focuses on one particular subculture, but for those who lived it, it’s a solid, if somewhat cringe-inducing experience . . .
Written & Directed By: Jonah Hill
Running Time: 85 min.
* * * (out of 4 stars) -OR- B