In his good, sometimes very good directorial debut, Mid90s, Jonah Hill crafts a lived-in world and populates it with individuals who are entertaining, even if what they do isn’t all that consequential.
Set in an unspoken Los Angeles in the titular bygone era, much of that engagement derives from its young protagonists being skateboarders capable of impressive tricks, none of which would be as meaningful without the genuine depiction of breaking in to a group of desirable individuals, learning its established pecking order and finding one’s place within it.
Our guide into this carefully crafted rite of passage is Stevie (Sunny Suljic, The Killing of a Sacred Deer), a boy of ambiguous age, but at most is barely a teenager. His prospective skate friends — talented, ambitious Ray (Na-kel Smith); wild-haired slacker Fuckshit (Olan Prenatt); quiet aspiring filmmaker Fourth Grade (Ryder McLaughlin); and runt Ruben (Gio Galicia) — are played by actors who seem familiar and excel at playing their particular type, but are in fact nearly all making their onscreen debuts.
The young ensemble’s raw yet cinematically compatible skills blend well with Hill’s throwback milieu, further fortified by being shot on film in a boxy aspect ratio — perhaps to complement the quality of Fourth Grade’s VHS footage — and a smartly cultivated soundtrack of predominately ’90 hip-hop jams.
Beyond the group’s shifting dynamics once Stevie joins their ranks and his various growing pains and gains, Mid90s lacks much narrative direction, but compensates with the skaters being generally well-developed, at least to the point where each young man’s motivations and personality are clear.
Such qualities are less present in Stevie’s largely absentee mom (Katherine Waterston) and 18-year-old brother Ian (Lucas Hedges), the latter of whose anger from mysterious sources — likely at being the family’s lone responsible member and his inability to rein in the other two — occasionally erupts on his agitator sibling.
The intimacy of the story’s limited dramatic focus also doesn’t lend itself to many instances of bravura filmmaking from Hill, though a crane shot from the ground to the rooftop gap between buildings that the group is going to jump, cued to Omega’s “Gyöngyhajú lány” (aka the sample at the end of Kanye West’s “New Slaves”), feels borderline epic.
On its all-too-brief ride (the runtime is barely over 80 minutes), Mid90s doles out plenty of laughs and thrills, as well as a few inevitabilities that aren’t unwelcome, but are nonetheless telegraphed and not carried out in particularly creative ways.
Shortcomings aside, it’s a promising start for Hill and one that fits in nicely with films of similar content from the past few months. Indeed, his work could pair well as a double feature with Hulu’s Minding the Gap, in many ways a documentary take on the same material, or Eighth Grade, a film with different goals that nonetheless beat it to the punch on numerous thematic fronts and in more eloquent fashion.
Grade: B. Rated R. Now playing at Biltmore Grande, Carolina Cinemark and the Fine Arts Theatre