“Mid90s'” captures a people and a place with the ring of the authentic, a grimly realistic depiction of skateboard culture in the working class LA where it blew up in the “Dogtown and Z-Boys” era.
Jonah Hill’s writing and directing debut documents transgressing kids at their underage drinking, smoking, trespassing peak in a story that is random and predictable, biting and yet predictably conventional.
It’s a period piece mainly in the sense that Hill, who made his name in foul-mouthed youth comedies like “Superbad,” gives himself permission to use the outdated, sexist, homophobic argot of dead-enders in that specific place and time.
Sunny Suljic (“The House with a Clock in Its Walls”) is Stevie, who admires his older brother Ian (Lucas Hedges of “Manchester by the Sea”) when he should probably be fearing him. Our introduction to the siblings sees Ian hurling Stevie against the wall and beating him black and blue. The heightened sound of the pummeling pushes you back in your seat.
The teen is furious at the tween for constantly coming into his room, messing with his carefully organized team jerseys, baseball caps, CDs and mix tapes. Ian is…neat.
And Stevie cannot resist. Every time Ian leaves in a torrent of profane threats, Stevie crosses the threshold and notes what he should be doing to be “cooler,” acting older than his age — attire, music, interests.
Then the fatherless boy finds Big Brothers who aren’t inclined to beat him. They’re skating slackers, teens running a skate shop but mainly just hanging out, showing off with their peers, a whole subculture that Stevie can fit into if only he can trade to get Ian’s old board and master it.
Writer-director Hill loses himself in the funny-gross banter, disgusting off-the-wall “Would you rather” games the boys play and the oddball culture clash questions the cool black skater Ray (Na-Kel Smith) asks the white “Fourth Grade” (Ryder McLaughlin).
“Why do white people love their PETS so much?”
Fourth Grade, named because of his verbal communication skills, is just as tactless.
“Can black people get sunburned?”
Stevie, coached by the one guy close to him in age if not size, Ruben (Gio Galicia) to avoid apologizing or saying “Thank you,” as it paints you as “gay” or the uglier slurs associated with that, gets suckered into that discussion and finds himself welcomed — and with a new nickname — “Sunburn.”
Sunburn seeks acceptance through mimicry and idiotic bravado. He’s not very good on a board, but he takes his spills like a little man — blood and head trauma included.
As the kids climb fences onto school grounds, ride their boards down the middle of busy LA streets, pee in public and provoke any adult authority figure who comes into view including Stevie’s too-young single-mom (Katie Waterston of “Fantastic Beasts” and “Logan Lucky”), Stevie/Sunburn has his first drink, his first drugs, his first taste of sex and his introduction to raging youth rebellion.
Hill makes the quartet Sunburn is initiated into interesting “types.” Fourth Grade is labeled “dumb,” but he’s the one with the camcorder, documenting their exploits. Ray doesn’t know black guys “don’t skate,” but takes what he’s doing as seriously as any other sport that might lift him out of his situation.
The multi-racial punk whose nickname is a combo of his two favorite swear words (F—S–t), played by Olan Prenatt, is the one with the car, the 17 year-old who comes from money, whose future he is sure consists of “Just livin’ life,” avoiding “all that tryin’ hard s–t.” He’s a mouthy pretty boy who attracts girls he uses with extreme prejudice and has access to too many drugs and too much booze for his own good.
Ruben is the member of the pack we know, by rote, Stevie/Sunburn will displace.
Stevie is raising himself, like a lot of kids in his situation. And his new “family” isn’t really a substitute for a real one, though every time he gets hurt, they look after him and encourage him.
Hill doesn’t really give the characters arcs. He just sets up conflicts — Stevie and Ian, Stevie and his Mom, Stevie and Ruben — and resolves them in ways we can see coming the moment we meet the characters.
He goes for a “Kids/thirteen” level of explicitness, jamming a McLovin’ load of taboo underage activities into a film that doesn’t treat them as laughs.
“Mid90s'” becomes, in full flower, a movie with characters more interesting or unusual than its very conventional story and setting, not a bad film so much as an incomplete one.
MPAA Rating: R for pervasive language, sexual content, drug and alcohol use, some violent behavior/disturbing images – all involving minors
Cast: Sunny Suljic, Lucas Hedges, Katie Waterston,Na-kel Smith, Olan Prenatt , Ryder McLaughlin, Gio Galicia
Credits:Written and directed by Jonah Hill. An A24 release.
Running time: 1:24