Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting
MID90S. Sunny Suljic, Na-Kel Smith, Olan Prenatt, Gio Galicia, Ryder McLaughlin, Lucas Hedges, Katherine Waterston. Directed by Jonah Hill. 85 minutes. Rated MA15+ (Strong coarse language).
As if going from the star of a handful of bawdy Judd Apatow-produced comedies to twice-Oscar nominated indie darling wasn’t enough, Jonah Hill had to add talented writer-director to his list of career achievements. You could be forgiven for forgetting that he has worked with filmmaking legends like Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino, as well as emerging talents like ‘Moneyball’ director Bennett Miller and the duo behind the ‘Jump Street’ reboots, Phil Lord & Christopher Miller. ‘mid90s’, Hill’s directorial debut, displays such a virtuoso knack for directing actors and an assured grasp of tone that one must assume that his previous fifteen years of collaborations have served him like the best film school that money can’t buy.
Hill directs from his own original screenplay, which centres on Stevie (Sunny Suljic), a 13-year-old kid living with his mother Dabney (Katherine Waterston) and older brother Ian (Lucas Hedges, great) in suburban Los Angeles. One day, while cruising aimlessly on his pushbike, Stevie watches a group of skateboarders mess with an angry shopkeeper and is immediately drawn in by their carefree attitudes and in your face humour. He soon returns to their regular hangout spot, the Motor Avenue Skateshop, and attaches himself to their posse, following them about with stars in his eyes and doing whatever is asked of him by the older kids. They don’t take advantage of him, but Stevie is just so stoked to be in the presence of older kids whom he has quickly deified that he wouldn’t mind if they did.
The de facto leaders of the group are Ray (Na-Kel Smith), a talented skater with designs on going pro, and ‘F**ks**t’ (Olan Prenatt, magnetic), whose skills don’t quite match up with those of Ray but who is more interested in having a good time anyway. There’s also ‘Fourth Grade’ (Ryder McLaughlin), a budding skate videographer thus named because he’s apparently as daft as a fourth grader, and Ruben (Gio Galicia), the youngest member of the group who first starts to show Stevie the ropes.
Although the movie has a more relaxed structure than your standard three-act movie, it’s the changes in Stevie, soon christened ‘Sunburn’ by his pals, imparted by the mid-90s skater culture that demand the most interest. He becomes more confident, surer of himself, less idolising of Ian. Though Dabney flits in and out of Stevie’s day-to-day life, it’s Ian’s presence, both threatening and revered, that hangs heaviest over proceedings. Stevie goes from hanging onto Ian’s every word and treating his room like a shrine (the first scene shows Ian beating Stevie, likely for a minor indiscretion such as entering Ian’s room without permission), to seeing him and his teenage angst and anger through clearer eyes.
His growing and changing relationships with the skaters, as well as their own internal friendships, are equally well-written and absorbing. Stevie and Ruben’s bond, naturally forged by their shared youth, is tested when Ruben starts to see Stevie as a threat to his own place in the group. Ray is similarly forced to revaluate his ties with F**ks**t when the latter’s predilection for partying jeopardises his reputation and the group’s safety. Given their youth and vulnerability, these interactions are injected with genuine concern, compounded by the vérité style filmmaking and performances.
With its matter of fact presentation of youths behaving badly and the culture of drinking and smoking and worse, you can feel the influence of 90s indie sensation and conversation starter ‘Kids’, the screenwriter of which – Harmony Korine – recently worked with Hill and makes a brief cameo in ‘mid90s’. Like ‘Kids’, ‘mid90s’ is not easy watching; there are some genuinely awful moments (a colleague with children described portions of the film as ‘a horror movie for parents’) and the behaviour of its lead characters strain moral boundaries. But they also share a feeling of loose anarchism, narratively and stylistically (Hill and cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt shoot in a boxy 4:3 ratio and keep the camera active throughout) and in the terrifically grounded, complex and real performances from a cast of largely non-actors.
Sunny Suljic is a revelation in the lead role. In Hill and Suljic’s hands, Stevie’s journey is both a satisfying coming of age and an alarming downward spiral. You’re at once both thrilled by his discovery of his place in a group and a movement that accepts and fulfils him in certain ways yet horrified by his exposure to the drinking and drugtaking that’s commonplace therein, not to mention the potential physical harm of the sport itself. Crucially, Suljic (who was astonishingly just 11-years-old at the time of filming) injects little moments throughout that remind you of Stevie’s young age despite the mature environment in which he’s now flourishing, like the rush of unbridled joy he displays after landing his first ollie (a basic skateboarding trick). He is utterly believable as a kid, and his presence grounds the film brilliantly. Na-Kel Smith, a professional skater in real life, is excellent too, exemplified by a pivotal conversation that he shares with Stevie when the latter is at his lowest.
I’ve heard interviews with Hill where he talks about the monumental significance of making your directorial debut. As he puts it, ‘you only get one shot to make your first film’. Hill undoubtedly made his shot count. ‘Mid90s’ feels personal and real, and it hits close to home. Hill might be 35-years old now, but he could be forgiven for celebrating his success like a delighted 13-year-old.