Making his debut as director with Mid90s, actor Jonah Hill follows a few critical months in the life of a preteen who, one is tempted to say, could only be played by Sunny Suljic, whose emotionally transparent performance makes stretches of the picture — when his character discovers skateboarding and the near-instant friends that come with it — a pure joy. A gender-flipped sibling to Crystal Moselle’s Skate Kitchen (set in Los Angeles versus that film’s NYC), its narrative of sudden belonging and onrushing perils mirrors that Sundance entry. But in emotional punch and shoulda-seen-this-coming skill, it is more like Hill’s Lady Bird, a gem that feels simultaneously informed by its author’s adolescence and the product of a serious artist’s observational distance.
Shot on Super 16 in the squared-off Academy aspect ratio, it begins like a domestic horror show: In the pale green hallway of a run-down house, Suljic’s Stevie is thrown around violently by big brother Ian (Lucas Hedges, who has made himself maybe 10 years younger, and much meaner, than he is in another Toronto title, Ben Is Back). Despite the beatings, or maybe in hopes of ending them, the next scene finds Stevie, as soon as Ian leaves the house, entering his brother’s room like a pilgrim in a sacred place — trying on his ball cap, touching his sneakers reverently, and copying the titles of every hip-hop CD on the older boy’s shelf. We think he’s trying to learn what’s cool, and he is; but he’s also researching an act of sweet, doomed generosity.
Stevie’s single mom (Katherine Waterston) was a teen when she had Ian, and remains young enough not to restrain herself when thinking aloud about new romantic interests. With TMI on one hand and beatings on the other, it’s no wonder Stevie’s in the market for hangouts away from home. Having spied on a quartet of teens who spend their days at a local skate shop, he summons the courage to enter the place, pretending to shop for T-shirts as he overhears their banter. Nobody acknowledges him, but when they’re skating in the alley, someone gives him a chore. He can hardly contain his excitement at filling a gallon jug with water.
He sidles into the group by becoming an audience for its least senior and least appreciated member, Ruben (Gio Galicia), who enjoys the chance to appear cooler than he is. “I’m livin’ the life,” he says as he dishes out nonsense advice like: Never say “thank you,” because people will think you’re gay. Ruben sells Stevie a beat-up skateboard, which allows him to enter the world of the older kids: Ray (Na-Kel Smith), whose skateboard skills are approaching pro level; his childhood friend Fuckshit (Olan Prenatt), the group’s carefree loudmouth; and Fourth Grade (Ryder McLaughlin), a quiet white boy who, with his cheap camcorder always trained on the action, will someday turn into a Spike Jonze. They skate, they taunt security guards with laugh-a-second banter, and they ask each other the kind of questions adults don’t. Stevie, who is quickly given the nickname Sunburn, is perpetually wearing a dazed smile at the thrill of being taken in by these characters — and that joy is contagious for any viewer who’s ever been several years younger than kids who, for reasons he can’t understand, think he’s cool.
The movie itself is impeccably but not ostentatiously cool, most obviously in its creative needle-drops. For a long stretch, Mid90s is like the first listen to a mixtape made by a new friend: every episode a surprise, each song delivering information about who that person is going to be in your life. The soundtrack knows that if you’re going to play “Wave of Mutilation,” it can’t be the album version; when Morrissey’s voice pops up amid rap songs he’d hate, it’s none of the songs you would guess. (The film, scored by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, also has musical knowledge beyond its subjects’ taste, sometimes setting their adventures to everything from Philip Glass and ESG to The Mamas & the Papas.)
Though he captures the ecstasy of finding one’s tribe, Hill keeps one eye, then both, on the corners of Stevie’s psyche that continue to threaten his happiness. Early on, when he steals money from his mother for that skateboard, he hasn’t even left the crime scene before he punishes himself — with an act of self-flagellation so specific no screenwriter would invent it. The volcanic episodes of fraternal rage continue, and Stevie will inevitably try too hard to consume beer and drugs at an 18-year-old’s pace. The picture flirts with melodrama, but no more than actual adolescence does — and then ends, having given us just enough structure to be called a movie. It leaves us wanting much more time with this kid called Sunburn, who’s learning which risky behavior leaves a scar, and which is likely to incinerate him.
Production companies: A24, Waypoint Entertainment
Cast: Sunny Suljic, Katherine Waterston, Lucas Hedges, Na-Kel Smith, Olan Prenatt, Gio Galicia, Ryder McLaughlin, Alexia Demie
Director-Screenwriter: Jonah Hill
Producers: Scott Rudin, Eli Bush, Ken Kao, Jonah Hill, Lila Yacoub
Executive producers: Scott Robertson, Jennifer Semler, Alex G. Scott
Director of photography: Christopher Blauvelt
Production designer: Jahmin Assa
Costume designer: Heidi Bivens
Editor: Nick Houy
Composers: Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross
Casting director: Allison Jones
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Special Presentation)