Actor Jonah Hill’s feature debut Mid90s is a masterfully executed, tender and beautifully evocative coming-of-age story. Written as well as directed by Hill, the film follows a teenage boy in 1990s-era Los Angeles as he spends his summer forming new and dangerous friendships away from his troubled home life.
13-year-old Stevie (Sunny Suljic) lives in LA with his aggressive older brother Ian (Lucas Hedges) and single mother Dabney (Katherine Waterston). In between taking regular beatings from Ian for no apparent reason and playing truant from school, Stevie becomes fascinated by a group of older punk skaters after a chance meeting at the Motor Avenue Sketeshop. Back home, the teenager trades with his brother for an 80s kids skateboard and later brings it to the shop in the hope of fitting in with the others. There, he befriends Ruben who later introduces him to the rest of the group: Ray, “Fuckshit” (Olan Prenatt) and “Fourth Grade.” (Ryder McLaughlin).
Impressed by his determination and fearless approach to learning, Stevie is soon welcomed into the group with open arms and nicknamed “Sunburn”, which in turn creates a rift between him and Ruben who feels sidelined by the older boys in favour of the newcomer. Smoking, drinking and popping pills whilst roaming the streets from skate-park to skatepark, Stevie finally feels like he’s part of something special.
Hill has made a film which feels both real and deeply honest. He tells a story which rings true without completely doing away with a certain amount of artifice and melodrama. Depicting a life many 90s kids are sure to relate to, Hill has done a fantastic job in putting every bit of his own sensibilities in the film without ever falling into the predictable or needlessly alienating.
With a soundtrack packed full to the brim with nostalgia-inducing rock and indie hits, Mid90s is under very little doubt about who its demographic is likely to be. Hill is also able to navigate dramatic experiences through music with impressive results. Some will inevitably have difficulties readjusting to the idea of Hill as a bona fide filmmaker, but anyone who has followed this brilliant actor’s trajectory of late will know that he truly is the real deal.
Comparisons will undoubtedly be made with Crystal Moselle’s Skate Kitchen, a film about a group of girl skaters from New York, but to my mind Mid90s somehow feels far more authentic both narratively and tonally. There are also shades of Larry Clark’s Kids, but the difference here is that Hill is careful to never be moralising or overly sensationalist, choosing instead to treat his protagonists with a great deal of tenderness and understanding.
Sunny Suljic is outstanding as Stevie, his bonhomie and wide-eyed optimism are as infectious as his character’s enthusiasm for wanting to fit in. Hedges does a great job in a rare unsympathetic role, while the rest of the cast truly impress with their fresh and brilliantly judged performances.
Overall, Mid90s delivers beyond what is expected from it and more, it is smart, cleverly written and utterly devastating in parts. Strengthened by its lo-fi qualities and a wonderfully knowing dialogue, the film presents a remarkable story about a remarkable group of people you’ll find yourself rooting for in no time. Truly outstanding.