Jonah Hill doesn’t appear in a single scene of Mid90s, but you can feel his presence in every scene of this comedy spiked with touching gravity. Making his directing debut with a script he wrote himself, Hill shapes this coming-of-age tale like a European art film (think Francois Truffaut’s 400 Blows), letting atmosphere, character and glimmers of feeling take precedence over narrative thrust. The technique may put off fans expecting a raucous take on Superbad or 21 Jump Street and its sequel, both of which Hill cowrote. But those who appreciate his mad skills as an actor who gave Oscar nominated performances in Moneyball and The Wolf of Wall Street know the star has the capacity to go deeper as an artist.
You’ll find proof positive in the hilarious and heartfelt movie, set to a rock and hip-hop soundtrack that predates the digital age. The film feels rough-hewn and hands-on as it tracks Stevie (Sunny Suljic), a naïve, lonely, unmanageable 13-year-old who’s having trouble balancing his life on the fringes of Los Angeles. His older brother, Ian (Lucas Hedges, scary-good), bullies him violently, a fact Stevie keeps from Dabney (Katherine Waterson), a single mom and part-time hooker who appears as rootless and troubled as her two sons.
Salvation comes in the form of a group of older friends he meets at a Motor Avenue skate shop. He watches these dudes in awe, adopting their addiction to skateboarding, never mind the broken bones and faceplants. For Stevie, his board is his magic carpet to a better place. Better yet, hanging with these older dudes gives Stevie a rush education in sex, drugs and rock & roll. They’re quite a crew. It’s hard to ignore Fuckshit, played with balls to spare by Olan Prenatt. There’s also Fourth Grade (Ryder McLaughlin) and Ruben (Gio Galicia). But keep your eye on Ray, the one black member of the group, played by a dynamite Na-kel Smith, a Supreme team boarder and model with real acting chops. His scenes with Stevie — Suljic is a wonder at making his smile rise through the darkness — are laced with a disarming tenderness.
Near the end, Hill boxes himself into a sentimental corner that takes a little off the film’s edge. But before that, Mid90s bristles with fun, feeling and the exhilaration that comes with risking life’s hairpin turns. The skateboarding scenes are killer (great work from D.P. Christopher Blauvelt). And the verbal duel to the death between Stevie’s mom and Fuckshit is fiercely funny. Mom isn’t sure her little boy needs to be hanging with thrill junkies who talk shit and ride high. Hill is absolutely sure — which makes his movie totally irresistible.