Director: Jonah Hill
Stars: Sunny Suljic, Katherine Waterston, Na-Kel Smith
With his Danny Torrance-esque mop of hair, Sunny Suljic added another level of Kubrickian shade to Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Killing Of A Sacred Deer a couple of years back. Now he takes the lead role in Jonah Hill’s directorial debut; a coming-of-age comedy of skateboarding and friendship that feels heavily drawn from experience. Presented in the Academy ratio of 1.375:1 (aka ‘that boxy looking frame’), Mid90s is self-consciously “indie”, evoking the likes of Andrea Arnold’s American Honey (a little) or Larry Clarke’s kids (A LOT). And Hill’s working here with Scott Rudin and A24, so that’s 100% the vibe he’s going for.
Suljic is young Stevie, or Sunburn as he will affectionately come to be known. His older brother (Lucas Hedges) enjoys beating him up. His single mother (Katherine Waterston) does her best. They live on that side of LA the movies never used to like admitting is there. Low-rent sprawl and smoggy concrete blocks. Neighbourhoods built for skateboarding.
Stevie starts hanging out at a local skate shop where he is introduced to some older kids. Hill’s history in bawdy comedy is well-represented here by a character genuinely called Fuckshit (Olan Prenatt) – so that contingent of his audience should be satisfied – but other members of the group belie Hill’s hopes to be taken more seriously. The quiet Fourth Grade (Ryder McLaughlin) is deliberately underwritten, and it is only through second-hand exposition that we gain some welcome insight into who he is. Best of all, however, is Ray (Na-Kel Smith), the oldest and wisest of the bunch, who champions Stevie and becomes a more idealised older brother than the one our protagonist has at home.
Together these kids get into trouble the way youngsters do. They fool around, skate, run away from the cops, get drunk and go to parties. They curse a lot and trade homophobic slurs. As an approximation of male teenage adolescence in the time period chosen by Hill, this is pretty much spot on. As one might expect, the deliberately rough-n-ready shooting style has been backed up with an appropriately nostalgic soundtrack. So the Pixies play loud, Stevie wears a Street Fighter II t-shirt and there’s not a cellphone in sight. Oh, the glory days.
There’s a party sequence relatively late on in the film that cuts through time to the source music in a fashion that shows bubbly enthusiasm from editor Nick Houy. Otherwise, Hill doesn’t indulge in many overt stylistic tics (though one might argue his whole film and its form is one giant stylistic tic).
It’s a victim of poor timing, then, that Mid90s arrived before me within a week of watching Oscar-nominated documentary Minding The Gap (still available to watch on Curzon Home Cinema and coming to DVD soon from Dogwoof). That film, directed by the phenomenally young and gifted Bing Liu, similarly follows a band of young boarders, for whom their vocation is an escape from the bonds of circumstance. Remarkably similar in concept, no? But Minding The Gap evolves far beyond this, becoming an investigation into institutionalised violence both frank and delicately balanced. The ambition and heart of Liu’s film – and the flare with which it is photographed by its director – far exceeds that exhibited in Hill’s. Truth is overwhelmingly more powerful than fiction in this instance. Set beside it, Mid90s feels like, well, a bit of an indulgence from one of Hollywood’s rich kids; one that timidly avoids prying open a host of social issues.
But that seems like an unnecessary swipe at Hill who – between this effort and his great supporting turn in Don’t Worry He Won’t Get Far On Foot – seems set on making changes to his image and moving outside of his comfort zone. Still, in spite of its grungy aesthetic, Mid90s isn’t that far removed from the bawdy bro-comedy with which his name is synonymous. It’s just packaged differently. And while fun, once over it leaves barely anything of itself behind.
Except for Na-Kel Smith. Encouragingly (and like Andrea Arnold and Larry Clarke before him), Hill has an eye for casting unknowns or non-actors in key roles. Smith brings dimension to Ray; he is both an emblem of the group’s try-hard spirit and its sage counsel. He’s seen over the crest of maturity, and knows whats coming. Smith’s the one to watch amid Mid90s‘ crop of young hopefuls (though I suspect we’ll be seeing more from both Sunny Suljic and Alexa Demie quite soon). Where Hill chooses to go from here should throw Mid90s into relief, and hopefully build upon a shrewdly ramshackle debut.