Jonah Hill has graced our screens in roles that have brought both laughter and melancholy, traits that overlap in movies such as “Superbad” and even “21 Jump Street”. It comes as no surprise then that he would make his feature-length directorial debut with a coming-of-age tale that juggles both comedy and drama. “mid90s” joins the onslaught of A24-backed teen movies featuring a social misfit at the centre of its story. There are notes of Andrea Arnold’s social realist coming-of-age stunner “American Honey”, with its reliance on an ensemble of young social misfits finding solace in a newfound culture that promises camaraderie, but without the same genre-piercing originality.
Hill’s story focuses on the exploits of Stevie (Sunny Suljic), who roams the warm, sun-soaked streets of 1990s Los Angeles with his newfound skater friends. Such warmth is contrasted with the metaphorical bleakness of his life at home, comprised by a small-family unit helmed by Stevie’s single mother Dabney (Katherine Waterston) and cruel-but-turmoiled older brother Ian (Lucas Hedges). A tender opening scene shows Stevie wandering in Ian’s room, like Alice taking her first steps in Wonderland, as he caresses Ian’s Air Jordan’s and makes observations about his era-accurate CD collection. Such delicacy presents Stevie’s idolisation of his older brother, despite the frequent physical abuse.
The overwhelming social realist feel of the piece is a product of the societal hardships that plague the lives of Hill’s created characters. Single-mother Dabney, portrayed sullenly by Katherine Waterston, is out of her depth in mothering her two reckless kids. Ian is a bad influence on his younger brother, who encourages him to lie and steal. Stevie, a once compassionate and obedient son, becomes more radical with his misbehaviour as he delves deeper into the skater, ‘fuck the system’ lifestyle. Hill’s focus on the small family unit brings forth much of the emotional density of the film, and when “mid90s” is at its best, it is when Hill uses his social realist lens to examine how Stevie’s newfound culture is resulting in the disassembly of his family.
Despite such thematic heaviness, Hill’s depiction of the 90s skater culture is presented as an escape from societal pressures and hardship. Aesthetically, youths roam in baggy jeans and oversized T-shirts, nodding along to R&B tracks while indulging in alcohol and drugs. But above all, there’s a warming sense of unflinching camaraderie, founded upon witty dialogue and images of the kids skating down busy roads. This idealistic vision of ‘the streets’ help Stevie’s gang of misfits finding solace with one another, a public sphere where the homeless and youths become one community. There is no discrimination in Hill’s skater world, a sense of togetherness visualised through cinematographer Christopher Blanvelt’s use of the boxed-in Academy ratio.
The organic chemistry conjured between the performances is as endearing as it is completely believable. Stevie’s burgeoning friendship with the likes of Ray (Na-kel Smith), ‘Fuckshit’ (no, I’m serious, played by Olan Prenatt), Ruben (Gio Galicia), and ‘Fourth Grade’ (Ryder McLaughlin) provide belly-fulls of laughs. Recruited by Hill for their prowess at skateboarding, it seems revelatory for these young talents to have their time to shine and completely knock it out of the park. If it weren’t for these kids, and the raw tenacity of their performances, the film would flatline.
“mid90s” ticks all the boxes of the coming-of-age film, but this herein lies my biggest issue with it. I craved more originality, more risks to be taken. With A24 providing a handful of inspiring directorial debuts to carpe diem stories – such as Greta Gerwig for “Lady Bird” and Bo Burnham for “Eighth Grade” – Jonah Hill’s effort doesn’t reach the same heights. But credit where credit is due, this is a strong starting point. I’m looking forward to seeing what Hill has in store next.