MID90S

Reviewed by GREG KING

Director: Jonah Hill

Stars: Sunny Suljic, Katherine Waterston, Lucas Hedges, Gio Galicia, Olan Prenatt, Na-kel Smith, Ryder McLaughlin.

Lucas Hedges and Sunny Suljic in Mid90s (2018)

Actor Jonah Hill makes his directorial debut with this low budget, nostalgic, semi-autobiographical coming of age tale set against the backdrop of LA’s skateboarding community. Mid90s is loosely based on Hill’s own experiences in the California skateboard scene. It has the same authenticity, rawness and honesty that marked Larry Clarke’s controversial Kids, which was shot during the mid 90s. Hill has shot the film on the streets and skateparks of Los Angeles, adding further verisimilitude to the material.

Stevie (Sunny Suljic, from The Killing Of A Sacred Deer, etc) is a troubled 13-year old who lives in an impoverished area of Los Angeles with his single, hard working mother Dabney (Katherine Waterston, from Logan Lucky, etc) and his abusive older brother Ian (Lucas Hedges, from Boy Erased, etc). His homelife is unhappy, and during the summer he spends time on the streets of LA. Which is where he comes across a group of skateboarders who hang out near a skate shop. The gang comprises of Ruben (Gio Galicia), the interestingly nicknamed “F**ks*it” (Olan Prenatt), the perennial adolescent, Ray (Na-kel Smith) and Fourth Grade (Ryder McLaughlin), an aspiring filmmaker who is constantly shooting everything with his video camera.

The group are impressed by Stevie’s fearlessness and natural ability and welcome him into their fold. For Stevie this group and their easy-going camaraderie provides an alternative family for him and gives him some eye-opening life experiences. But his presence soon causes friction with the insecure Ray. Stevie thinks the street-smart skateboarders, who seem to function outside the usual rules, are incredibly cool, but Dabney is not impressed or thrilled at the influence they have on her son.  

Like many skateboarding films (The Lords Of Dogtown, etc) Mid90s has a gritty aesthetic and a free-wheeling and rough around the edges vibe that suits the material. Cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt (The Bling Ring, etc) has used lots of handheld cameras to give the film a gritty aesthetic. He bathes the film in a warm brownish hue that is evocative of the time and the setting. The film has been shot on 16mm and in a boxy 4:3 ratio that gives it the look and feel of home video at times.

It is obvious that Hill (better known for comedies like 21 Jump Street, etc) has been studying under the many influential directors he has worked with. Like Scorsese he effectively uses music to evoke the era; the score has been composed by Trent Reznor, and the soundtrack consists of edgy 90s indie rock. Hill elicits naturalistic, minimalist performances from his young and largely unknown cast, many of whom come from a skateboarding background and who make their film debuts here. The dialogue between the youthful characters seems realistic.

Suljic himself is a skateboarder and is a perfect fit for the role of Stevie. He brings a wide-eyed innocence and sense of optimism to his performance. Hedges, who often plays troubled teens, is largely cast against type here as Stevie’s taciturn older brother; he is also underused in a role that gives him little dialogue or character development. Waterston brings a mix of strength and vulnerability to her performance.

Mid90s is an ode to brotherhood, to family and friendship, freedom and to finding your own place in the world. At a brisk 85 minutes it doesn’t outstay its welcome. This offbeat and personal film is aimed at a certain demographic and will not hold broad mainstream appeal. But it does stamp Hill as a filmmaker to watch in the future.

★★★

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