Release: Friday, October 26, 2018
Written by: Jonah Hill
Directed by: Jonah Hill
Ahead of its premiere at TIFF earlier this year, débuting writer-director Jonah Hill said of his mid90s, a rough-around-the-edges, scrappy little slice-of-life drama extracted from the streets of L.A., that what he really didn’t want to do was create nostalgia porn. Honestly, this is the first time I have ever heard the phrase ‘nostalgia porn.’ To me that seems like a term only a child of the early-to-mid 2000s could coin. It’s funny though, as Hill certainly captures a number of performances and a milieu that feel gritty and authentic, while his creative approach, shooting almost guerrilla style and in a 4:3 aspect, invariably sends us back to the days of the classically grainy street-skating edits.
The story follows little Stevie (introducing Sunny Suljic) who lives with his co-dependent single mom Dabney (Katherine Waterston) and abusive older brother Ian (the justifiably ubiquitous Lucas Hedges) and his experiences falling in with a group of skateboarders as he attempts to find out who he really is instead of the punching bag he is at home. One day Stevie spots a group of skaters across the street giving a store owner a hard time as he attempts to shoo them away from the property. Amused, he follows them back to a skate shop located on Motor Avenue, drawn in by their swagger.
The supporting parts are played mostly by non-professional actors, starting with Suljic whom Hill apparently discovered at a skatepark. He also invited pro-am skaters Na-kel Smith (playing the notably more mature Ray) and Olan Prenatt (“Fuckshit,” the only logical nickname for someone so hype) to read for him and they quickly got the gig. More on the periphery are “Fourth Grade” (Ryder McLaughlin), a not-so-bright fella whose poverty is so extreme his family can barely afford socks, and Ruben (Gio Galicia), whose physically abusive home life explains his more antagonistic, tough-guy persona.
Before long, and despite initial misgivings, Stevie (a.k.a. “Sunburn,” a nickname earned after his first and truly awkward interaction) seems to have found his tribe, and a few new thrills in one fell swoop. He quickly latches on to the partying aspects that seem to go hand-in-hand with this vagrant lifestyle. As he gets in deeper his behavior begins to change, that wide-eyed innocence traded out for a misguided sense of what being “cool” looks and sounds like. (Hint: it ain’t defined by screaming like a maniac at your mother.) With an ego running amok, Stevie finds himself twisting into a pretzel trying to become something he isn’t.
What’s great about mid90s is that you never needed to have popped an ollie in your life to be able to appreciate its themes, or to sympathize with its admittedly foul-mouthed teen protagonists. Fitting in, being accepted, succumbing to peer pressure — these are universal experiences and they certainly don’t dry up after high school. Skateboarding culture is a big part of it but this isn’t a movie about skateboarding. Understanding the nuances of the art form is less important as noticing the escapement, the freedom of movement it provides — and that’s especially true of the creative design of the production itself. Skateboarding is what gives the narrative fluidity, moving us gracefully (and sometimes less so) between moments and locales that give character to this sympathetically told coming-of-age piece.
Recommendation: Mid90s proves an entirely natural and honest portrayal of adolescence and the growing pains associated with it. There is an element of bittersweetness inherent in the going back, but that’s more of a side effect than an end goal. While what happens on screen is engaging, I think what’s happening behind the camera is even more exciting. Jonah Hill, comedic progeny of Judd Apatow/Seth Rogen/Evan Goldberg, has made something entirely divorced from his acting career. Slight but substantive, and with an uncanny sense of time and place, the film is unquestionably a strong first effort.
Running Time: 85 mins.
Quoted: “A lot of the time, you feel that our lives are the worst. But you look in anybody else’s closet, you wouldn’t trade your shit for their shit.”
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