Jonah Hill’s directorial debut, mid90s, is a beaut. Like American Graffiti and Lady Bird, it has a unique quality of feeling at once deeply felt, textured and personal like a drama yet with enough distance and precise observation to obtain an almost documentary objectivity.
With this kind of lo-fi veracity, the obvious touchstone might be Larry Clark’s Kids, but mid90s has more the feel of early Scorsese — chiefly Who’s That Knocking At My Door — a loosely plotted, character-driven piece that documents the rites of passage and rituals of teenage LA life circa 1995. Looking for an escape from an increasingly difficult home life — an oversharing mother (Katherine Waterson), a bullying brother (Lucas Hedges) — 13-year-old Stevie (Suljic, terrific) is drawn into a gang of skaters who shoot the shit as much as they ollie and noseslide: cue ball-headed sociopath Ruben — “Don’t thank me; that’s gay” (Galicia); Fuckshit (Prenatt), who earns his monicker by starting each sentence with, “Fuck! Shit!”; Fourth Grade, a dim but sweet Spike Jonze wannabe never seen without a camcorder; and Ray (Smith), the older de facto leader who dreams of becoming a pro skateboarder.
Graced with beautifully naturalistic performances by its young cast, the film is at its best just hanging out with these kids (there’s a killer debate about parents and oral sex). This assemblage of little moments might not seem much but they build into a telling picture of young LA manhood on an unvarnished, candid level. There’s little here that hasn’t been covered by countless teen movies but Hill manages to add details and twists that make it feel fresh. When Sunburn has his first sexual experience, you’d expect a scene of post-game analysis with his bros, but Hill also cuts to a conversation between the girls to offer a different view. It’s a small moment but redolent of the feeling Hill has for his characters and the world they inhabit.
It carries all the hallmarks of modern indie — lower-case title, shot in Super 16 in the boxed-off Academy ratio, a score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross — but this isn’t first-film posturing. Instead there is something timeless about Hill’s vision — a recurring shot of his heroes skating down a central reservation captures an elegiac moment for these characters without hitting you over the head with its portent. Hill also has the smarts to extend his soundtrack beyond the tastes of his characters, from Morrissey to Philip Glass to The Mamas & The Papas. It’s a beautifully modulated debut that bodes well for Hill’s future. Or as they said back then, “Cowabunga, dude!”