A year after Greta Gerwig’s “Lady Bird” comes another actor-turned-director’s memory- inspired California-set coming-of-age tale from the boutique film studio A24. This time, the time period has been dialed back a few years (from the early ‘00s to the mid-’90s), Dave Mathews Band has been traded for A Tribe Called Quest, and the filmmaking talent is far less revelatory.
Though affectionately and sometimes precisely recalled, Jonah Hill’s thinly sketched directorial debut “Mid90s” feels both sincerely personal and highly derivative at once: a pre-digital slice of life that forces contrived narratives onto what ought to have remained a fleeter, kaleidoscopic ride.
Thirteen-year-old Stevie (Sunny Suljic) is drawn inexorably to the local skate shop near his lower-middle-class, single-parent home. Stevie lives with his loving mother (Katherine Waterston, adding depth to every scene she appears in) and abusive older brother (Lucas Hedges), whose rage goes largely unexplained and whose brutal blows (shown from the film’s first scene) are unnaturally amplified to action-movie-level ferocity. Still, he’s got a rad CD collection, which Stevie studiously takes notes from when his brother isn’t around.
But in the skate shop, and among its older teenage regulars, Stevie finds a refuge. He gradually cozies up to them, trades some video games for a skate board, and soon finds himself a member of the group — or at least its smaller, younger, mop-headed mascot. They are expert skaters, foul-mouthed storytellers, 40-drinking partiers who gleefully disrespect authority. (The movie’s best scene is an exchange with a security guard, played by Jerrod Carmichael.) In Suljic’s bright eyes, as he thrills to his rapidly widening world, Hill captures that glorious adolescent feeling: fitting in.
Shot in grainy 16mm and a 4-3 ratio by cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt, “Mid90s” — which takes liberally from Larry Clark’s documentary-
styled “Kids” — is first and foremost fetishized nostalgia that delights in nothing as much as period-appropriate, pre-digital minutiae. The soundtrack, from The Pharcyde to the Pixies, often seems more primary than the story. No space that couldn’t be filled with a “Street Fighter II” T-shirt, “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” bedding or mention of a “Blockbuster night” has gone wanting. (There is also a score by Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor, whose Nine Inch Nails was at its peak in the mid-90s — yet another reminder of how much has changed in the last two decades.)
“Mid90s” is at its best when exploring the group dynamics of its motley skating crew, several of whom are played by professional skateboaders. There’s the younger, jealous Ruben (Gio Galicia), the dimwitted aspiring filmmaker Fourth Grade (Ryder McLaughlin), a boisterous, swaggering long blond-haired kid with an unprintable nickname, and the group’s unquestioned leader, Ray (Na-kel Smith). Their dialogue is laced with homophobic and sexist slurs, which is surely just as authentic to the period as a DiscMan. But, like so much else in “Mid90s,” it goes unexamined.
A pair of other recent films — “Minding the Gap,” ‘’Skate Kitchen” — better explored the camaraderie and freedom of skater culture. But there are glimpses here of a more radiant, lyrical film, like in the loving, unabashedly operatic scene of dozens of riders fleeing police, or the hazy glow of a slow cruise down a thoroughfare’s median at twilight.
One of the film’s most glaring issues is that Suljic, 11 at the time of filming, is simply too young for the role. That the filmmakers were drawn by his talent and on-screen presence is understandable. But he’s a little guy. And when Stevie’s coming-of-age leaps into more mature territory, it’s just one more incongruity in a heartfelt but crudely made film full of holes.
I kept wishing “Mid90s” centered not on Stevie but on Ray, the group’s sensitive and ambitious captain. Smith, a pro skateboarder making his acting debut, has an arresting sweetness. With aspirations for turning his skateboarding skills into something more, Ray’s the only one in “Mid90s” looking forward.
“Mid90s,” an A24 release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for pervasive language, sexual content, drug and alcohol use, some violent behavior/disturbing images — all involving minors.” Running time: 84 minutes.