Movie review: Jonah Hill's 'Mid90s' a nostalgic, authentic coming-of-age drama

 
 
Updated 10/26/2018 10:52 AM
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  • Brutal brother Ian (Lucas Hedges), left, shares a rare quiet moment with Stevie (Sunny Suljic) in "Mid90s."

    Brutal brother Ian (Lucas Hedges), left, shares a rare quiet moment with Stevie (Sunny Suljic) in "Mid90s." Courtesy of A24 Films

"Mid90s" -- ★ ★ ★

Jonah Hill's directorial debut "Mid90s" presents a nostalgic, coming-of-age drama about five L.A. skateboarding punks searching for a plot.

They never find one.

But that's OK.

Hill prefers to concentrate on the too-common bonds that tie these characters together: alienation, frustration and an abject lack of spiritual growth, family support and responsible adult mentors.

Consider "Mid90s" an indie "Stand By Me" for the 21st century. The latter film, based on Stephen King's novella "The Body," likewise dealt with young boys struggling with loss and acceptance.

They also experienced death and dangerous bullies, sensational elements that don't interest Hill.

We enter this period skateboarding world through the sloe-eyed viewpoint of Stevie (a winningly vulnerable Sunny Suljic), a 13-year-old with a face of angelic innocence hiding under a wild, untamable mane.

"Mid90s" wastes no time in establishing Stevie's troubled home life. He gets slammed into a hallway wall by his older, weightlifting brother Ian (Lucas Hedges), who proceeds to pummel the poor lad with his fists on the floor.

Soon, we see that Ian's aggression stems from the same frustrations that plague his brother. They have no father around, and their sweet mom Dabney (Katherine Waterston) became a mother too young and never evolved into a strong parental figure.

On his own during the summer, Stevie begins hanging out with some toasted skateboarders at the local Motor Avenue Skate Shop, a small operation that seems more of a disenfranchised teen hangout than a real business.

Stevie chats up Ruben (Gio Galacia), a sulking kid with an attitude against basic good manners.

Another kid, whose name can't be printed in a family newspaper, is played by Olan Prenatt with cascading highlighted ringlets, and the closest character Hill himself would have played as a teen.

Stevie (Sunny Suljic), left, has a heart-to-heart with Ray (Na-Kel Smith) in Jonah Hill's directorial debut "Mid90s."
Stevie (Sunny Suljic), left, has a heart-to-heart with Ray (Na-Kel Smith) in Jonah Hill's directorial debut "Mid90s." - Courtesy of A24 Films

The reserved, insecure Fourth Grade (Ryder McLaughlin) goes nowhere without his camcorder.

African-American Ray (played by Na-Kel Smith, the strongest, most memorable performer in this ensemble) seems to be the only skater with a master plan: to one day be a pro skateboard star.

Like the kids from "Stand By Me" wondering about Disney cartoon characters, the "Mid90s" counterparts reveal their own comic curiosities, particularly during a discussion about whether black people can get sunburned, and Stevie endearingly asks, "What are black people?"

Gradually, Stevie earns the acceptance of these rough-edged, inarticulate, but surprisingly kind outsiders.

Early in "Mid90s," the five kids skate down a long, dusky L.A. street, the first four in stellar form, followed by a distant Stevie, struggling to keep up.

Later, we see the same shot, except that Stevie, after being accepted by the older boys, now cruises with confidence.

Regular Hollywood films would end with Ray as a professional skateboarding star in a documentary shot by his old buddy Fourth Grade.

But Hill wants none of that canned Hollywood product.

His authentic characters, created from grit and scratch, don't need a splashy ending.

Just our realization that Stevie will never have friends like the ones he had when he was 13. Does anyone?

• • •

Starring: Sunny Suljic, Lucas Hedges, Katherine Waterston, Na-Kel Smith, Gio Galicia

Directed by: Jonah Hill

Other: An A24 release. Rated R for substance abuse, language, violence. 84 minutes

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