The same is true for the characters in Jonah Hill’s debut as a feature film writer and director, mid90s. This kind of belonging is something that thirteen-year-old Stevie (Sunny Suljic) is desperately needing. His brother Ian (Lucas Hedges playing yet another troubled adolescent) is remote, abusive and quite likely self-loathing. When he commits acts of violence on his little brother (which is very often) he generally wears a creepy Bill Clinton mask. It’s as though he doesn’t want to be the person who behaves the way he does. The head of this damaged family, young single-mother Dabney (Katherine Waterston) seems ill equipped to properly parent her two boys. She seems more interested in pursuing her own life and admits, at Ian’s eighteenth birthday dinner, that he is now as old as she was when he was born.
So when Stevie encounters a group of skateboarders and sees the way they are with each other, he is instantly attracted to them and, although he’s much younger than they are, he is slowly drawn into a friendship with them that revolves around their obsession with skateboarding. The group’s leader and wannabe skateboard pro is Ray (Na-kel Smith) who seems to have a deeper perspective on life than the others and a willingness to share that with the newest member of the group, Sunburn (as Stevie becomes known). Ray’s best friend is Fuckshit (Olan Prenatt) a freewheeling loose canon who seems to skate across the surface of life as easily as he rides his board. The quite one of the group is Fourth Grade (Ryder McLaughlin) who spends his whole time videoing their antics and endlessly inane conversations (who’d win a fight between… if you had to, would you rather do this disgusting thing or that disgusting thing?... that sort of thing) and the youngest is Ruben (Gio Galicia) who is not much older than Stevie and slowly comes to resent him as Stevie moves up in the pecking order.
On the surface, this might appear to be a story about a bunch of L.A. adolescents in the mid-1990s who spend most of their time trying to outdo each other with their skateboard stunts in the hope of getting picked up for the pro tour. But there’s a lot more going on here. This is a film about the importance of friendship and role models even if, in the absence of any examples set by parent or sibling, that modelling comes from a bunch of peers who at least, for the most part, care for each other and have each other’s best interests at heart. These guys may not be perfect young citizens, but for all their bad behaviour and trash talking, they’re essentially good kids and Stevie feels to be in relatively good company when he’s with them, especially when he’s with Ray.
Jonah Hill has already made the leap from dumb comedies to powerful dramatic roles in films like Moneyball (2011), The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) and one of last year’s most underrated films, Don’t Worry He Won’t get Far on Foot. Now he’s made the leap from one side of the camera to the other and the result is exciting, not just in what he’s produced with this film, but for the potential he shows for the projects to come. mid90s plays out in less of a narrative arc and more a collection of scenes that slowly accumulate to become more than the sum of their parts. His screenplay feels like it might be more of a story-map that provides space for this talented young cast to put their own stamp on both the dialogue and the action. And when the climactic moment comes, it arrives with a jolt but, (without giving anything away) instead of bringing things to the kind of end that might be more predictable for this kind of movie, it presents us with something quite different; something that might even contain hope for the way this tight group of friends are affected by each other. I can’t wait to see what Jonah Hill does next.