Jonah Hill makes his feature directing debut from his own script with Mid90s, the best movie ever made about skater culture and a powerful movie about familial dysfunction and the need for friendships.
Sunny Suljic (The House with a Clock in Its Walls) gives a breakout performance as Stevie, a kid living in a single parent household with a headcase older brother, Ian (Lucas Hedges). Stevie suffers massive beatings at the hands of Ian and goes to a messed-up place where he causes himself further pain with self-inflicted strangulation, skin burns and simply pressing on the bruises Ian created. In short, the kid has some major issues.
In search of some kind of identity, Stevie grabs himself a skateboard and starts hanging around some older kids at the skate shop. They include skaters nicknamed Fuckshit (Olan Prenatt), Fourth Grade (Ryder McLaughlin), and a younger kid simply named Ruben (Gio Galicia) because he hasn’t earned his nickname yet.
Stevie practices nights trying to do flips. He isn’t a natural, but he’s persistent. After a strange anecdote in a conversation circle, he earns the nickname Sunburn, and it sticks. He eventually becomes part of the group and finds a less crazy big brother figure in Ray (Na-kel Smith), the group’s best skater, and an employee at the skate shop they hang at. Their kinship becomes the heart of the movie, especially when Ray becomes his sole, mostly clean, stable influence as others in the group introduce Stevie to drinking, drugs and sex.
As Stevie’s social life takes off, his home life further withers, including increasing violence from Ian and some communication problems with his mother, Dabney (Katherine Waterston of Alien: Covenant). Hill shows some beatdowns at the hands of Ian that are particularly brutal—you get a sense that Ian is one strike away from killing his little brother. After suspecting her kid is taking drugs and drinking, Dabney marches Stevie into the skate shop and scolds the group, something the skaters take surprisingly well.
Hill does an expert job showing how important skating and these new friends are to Stevie in his development. The director doesn’t shy away from the bad influence some of them provide—influences present in just about every high schooler’s life. Suljic proves to be the perfect pick for Stevie, a solid young actor (he was also the best thing about Clock in Its Walls). He’s a short guy, but when he bests Ruben in a street fight, you believe he can take the bigger kid. He brings a lot of passion to the role.
Hedges, so damned good in Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri and Manchester By the Sea (for which he was Oscar-nominated) delivers the film’s best performance as the nightmare older brother. He’s a psycho, but he has a vulnerable side that’s fighting to break out behind his pained eyes. He makes a major mark in his few, strong scenes.
It’s abundantly clear a short time into the movie that Hill possesses solid directorial chops. A scene where Stevie goes into his brother’s room despite death threats from Ian is both foreboding and awe-inspiring. (Ian keeps a mighty clean, ultra-organized room.) This is where Hill starts effectively using an excellent, moody score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. As solid as his directorial choices are, this movie wouldn’t be what it is without its score. It’s basically a character in the film.
Mid90s employs a gritty, documentary look, and while it shows some skating stunts, the actual skateboarding scenes don’t overwhelm the movie. They act more as vital flavoring. The crux of the story here is the bond between Stevie and his posse and the strained relationships at home.
Hill, like his buddy Bradley Cooper with A Star is Born, has given himself a solid start in the directorial world. I’m eagerly anticipating what he chooses to do next behind the camera.