Mid90s: Jonah HIll's directorial debut more S.E. Hinton-lite than edgy

By Liam Lacey

Rating: B

After Jonah Hill established himself as part of Judd Apatow's repertory of comic actors (Superbad, Knocked Up), he crossed over to Oscar-nominated dramatic performances in Bennett Miller’s Moneyball and Martin Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street. 

In the next stage of his progress toward seriousness, he's gone and made his own movie, Mid90s, set in the decade when Hill was in his adolescence.

It’s a movie that preserves the decade in its fashion and music styles, in an amber of pain and affection. The movie is an honourable effort, if self-consciously “artistic” to a fault. Shot on grainy 16mm in a square screen ratio, its tone evokes Kids (released in 1995), which Harmony Korine wrote and Larry Clark directed

The lo-fi approach is deceptive though. The cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt (The Bling RingMeek’s Cutoff) and composers of the excellent period soundtrack, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (The Social Network) aren’t the kind of collaborators most first-time indie filmmakers can call on.

Mid90s’ star Sunny Suljic.

Mid90s’ star Sunny Suljic.

The boy in the story, Stevie (Sunny Suljic, whose face seems to default to woebegone and lights up like a candelabra when he gets an approving nod) does not appear to have much in common with Hill's reportedly privileged upbringing. He’s supposed to be thirteen, but looks younger. Stevie is a latchkey kid who lives in a modest Los Angeles bungalow with his sullen, abusive older brother, Ian (Lucas Hedges) who Stevie both fears and idolizes for his hat collection and hip-hop CDs. 

Their single mom, Dabney (Katherine Waterston) had Ian when she was a teen-ager and hasn’t quite lost her wild streak. (Harmony Korine has a fleeting scruffy cameo, emerging from Dabney’s bedroom one morning, zipping up his trousers.)

One summer, Stevie falls in with a crew of biracial older skateboarders who he meets at a local skate shop, where they watch skate videos, talk trash and hang, between visits to local skate parks. There's Ruben (Gio Galicia), the bottom of the pecking order, Ray (Na-kel Smith), Fuckshit (Olan Prenatt), named for his favourite two words, and Fourth Grade (Ryder McLaughlin), who is considered dumb (but we know he isn’t because he carries around a video camera at all times, making art from experience.) 

The prince-like Ray is the best skater and natural leader, who nicknames Stevie "Sunburn." (This causes Reuben to seethe, because he doesn’t have a nickname yet.) Fuckshit, as his name suggests, is the wild card -- a mocha-skinned kid with a luxurious waterfall of blond curls and gaping smile, who lives to skate and  party. He's played by Olan Prenatt, a skateboarder and model with a big Instagram following, and who feels more like a found character than an actor.

Most scenes are well-observed, learning the rules for learning to be male. Saying “Thank you” is gay, Rueben informs him, though Ray later corrects that: (“It’s just good manners.”) 

This is a world of learning the borders: Seeing how far you could get with a girl, then exaggerating about it to your male friends. Showing off how much physical punishment you can take (Stevie earns big respect when he falls off a roof and has a bloody head wound.) In predictable steps, he progresses from furtively smoking cigarettes to smoking bowls, and chugging from a 40-ouncer and even making out with a slightly older girl who decides he’s “not yet a dick”.

Occasionally, Hill integrates the boys-learning-to-be-boys crude dialogue with something closer to the more polished smart-mouth one-upmanship that reminds you of the Hill of 21 Jump Street or Superbad: TV comedian Jarrod Carmichael (The Carmichael Show) appears briefly as a sarcastic security guard, taunting the skater boys from behind a chain link fence.

When he goes for street-style authenticity, he’s more likely to misfire: A scene where the crew start talking to a homeless man – who thanks them for giving him attention -- strikes an awkward note of condescension. (The homeless man is not a found character; he’s played by rapper Del the Funky Homosapien.)

As part of his struggle to be part of the cool crowd; Stevie steals money from his mom’s drawer to buy a new board. Later, he beats himself on the thighs with a hair brush in penance, which shocks, but seems suspiciously unmotivated. Did Daphne, his loving, if preoccupied mother, ever punish him that way? There’s no evidence of it. And the brotherly beatings he receives from Ian, while brutal, are of the more familiar wrestle-and-punch variety.

In the end, Hill is inclined to land closer to the heartfelt teen dramas of S.E. Hinton (The Outsiders, Rumblefish) than the docudrama grittiness he affects. 

For the most part, Mid90s is an honorable first effort. But he fluffs the ending, which is like something from an afterschool special. To use a useful old-fashioned adjective that has been reborn in the hip-hop age to describe preciously over-reaching artists like Macklemore, it’s just “corny.”

Mid90s. Directed and written by Jonah Hill. Starring: Sunny Suljic, Lucas Hedges, Na-kel Smith, Gio Galicia, Ryder McLaughlin, Katherine Waterston, Olan Prenatt. Mid90s shows at the Scotiabank Theatre and Canada Square.