Jonah Hill is well established as one of his generation’s finest actors, already the recipient of Oscar nominations for Moneyball and The Wolf of Wall Street and a standout onscreen since his breakout turn in 2007’s Superbad. But as I say in my video review (click the link above to watch), he now can add the words “writer and director” to his filmography with a terrific debut behind the camera on Mid90’s, a coming-of-age skateboarder tale set right in the heart of a place Hill knows well, West Los Angeles in the mid-1990s, where he grew up and still lives.
There is no question that he knows this town, that time and these people — a ragtag group of kids who hang out on Motor Avenue with their skateboards and tall stories. All good filmmakers have a voice, and you can really hear Hill’s voice through these oddball but endearingly original characters. Every last one of them is unique, not a stereotype; teens you just know are out there somewhere. Although this film is poignant, dramatic and authentic in many ways, it is first and foremost a wryly funny human comedy masterfully brought to life by Hill’s writing and the casting of this unforgettable group, led by the 13-year-old at the center of this story.
The irresistible Sunny Suljic plays Stevie, a kid whose home life is not all that, constantly bullied by his sullen older brother Ian (Lucas Hedges) and largely ignored by otherwise well-meaning mom (Katherine Waterston), a single parent who seems equally concerned with finding a new mate and tends not to notice what her kids are up to. It is no wonder he wants to escape to the local hangout of some older dudes who reluctantly let him into their SoCal skateboard “culture” on the streets of West L.A. He largely becomes a gofer for them and especially plays up to the titular leader, Ruben (Gio Galicia), who tries selling him a used skateboard for much more than it’s worth. Nevertheless he finds some camaraderie with this bunch including Ray (Na-Kel Smith), F*ckshit (Olan Prenatt) and Fourth Grade (Ryder McLaughlin). Yes, everyone has a nickname, and soon so does Stevie aka Sunburn. His adventures with this crowd are priceless, and of course they aren’t the best role models, something Stevie’s mother soon finds out when he finds himself in over his head and she tries to come to the rescue.
Although the tone set by Hill is mostly light, he isn’t afraid to take this film into serious places, never skating around the realities of life that crop up, especially for a kid trying to find himself. In some ways this is everyone’s coming-of-age story, no matter how wildly different those awkward years were for each of us. Hill finds not only his voice here but sort of everyone’s. In terms of its sheer humanity, it oddly reminded me of Vittorio DeSica’s postwar Italian realist movies, even though on the surface Mid90’s could not be further from them. This is not a movie that can be dismissed in any way. Don’t kid yourselves. Hill has crafted something for the ages, and anyone at any age ought to be able to recognize it.
There is no stinting on the language here, which borders on outrageous but feels just right in perfectly cast very R-rated gem, led by Suljic in a role that is memorable in so many ways I would not forget him come awards time. And that goes for Hill and Mid90’s too. A24 releases it Friday.
Do you plan to see Mid90’s? Let us know what you think.