In “mid90s,” Stevie (Sunny Suljic), a 13-year-old Los Angeles kid with hair bigger than his head and a cute shy gaze of sloe-eyed innocence, escapes his bleak abusive home by hooking up with four slovenly, zoned-out skate punks who take him under their tattered wings. If this were a Hollywood movie, or even a certain kind of indie movie (the most typical kind), Stevie, bolstered by his new friends, would learn a lot about how to skate (by the end of the film, he’d be careening off the walls of empty swimming pools). He would also come of age by undergoing rites of damaged mischief and absorbing a handful of “streetwise” life lessons.
But that’s not the movie that Jonah Hill, the writer and director of “mid90s” (it’s the actor’s first time behind the camera), has made. Stevie needs friends — he needs somebody — badly. The film opens with a head-on shot of his domestic hell: In the dank cramped chartreuse hall of his home, his older brother, Ian (Lucas Hedges), beats the holy crap out of him. Stevie has to find some sort of escape, but the kids who are offering it have almost nothing in common with him. Stevie is basically a nice sweet puppy with middle-class values and manners, whereas his mostly older skate pals are a blitzed, fried, stunted, blunted crew of loutish teenage wastrels.
To say that they don’t articulate their feelings would be to understate it. They’re post-conversational — their navel-gazing banter is a series of free-associational sputters punctuated with the tauntingly aggressive slang of the hood. They’re stuck in their own heads. They don’t connect — they just exist.
“mid90s” is about as spiky and unsentimental as a youth-rebellion movie can get. Hill makes it feel like a documentary, and by that I don’t just mean that it’s shot in a mode of unvarnished simulated vérite. The actors who play the skate punks all have a found-object quality. They may or may not be “playing themselves,” but their personalities don’t feel concocted for the camera. And that’s why “mid90s,” though made by a Hollywood star, isn’t a nostalgic indie “fable” in gritty skate-punk drag. It’s something smaller and purer: a slice of street life made up of skittery moments that achieve a bone-deep reality. And because you believe what you’re seeing, what the moments add up to, in their artfully random way, is an adventure.
At first, it’s not clear why Stevie, drifting around over summer vacation, is drawn to the kids whom he spies causing trouble in front of the Motor Avenue skate shop. Sitting around with them, he tries to talk to Ruben (Gio Galacia), the youngest and most blasted of the four, with a close-cropped haircut that makes his head look like a coconut, and when Stevie thanks him for something, Ruben says, “Don’t thank me — that’s gay.” He means it (and follows it up with stronger language to show how much he means it). Saying that “thank you” is “gay” is really code for trashing all civility. And Ruben looks and sounds like a budding sociopath. But that’s okay. Stevie doesn’t have to interface with the other boy’s psycho intolerance — he’s an observer, game for anything. Sunny Suljic gives a performance of the purest boyhood, one that’s by turns wary, ebullient, circumspect, and cocky. He shows you just what it is that Stevie is drawn to. It’s the shock of the new, which lets him grow up.
The other punks are a little more companionable in their live-now-fuck-everything way. One is nicknamed Fourth Grade, because that’s supposedly his level of intellect, and Ryder McLaughlin plays him as a kid in spiky frosted-blond hair who never lets go of his camcorder and barely talks because he’s too tense. You can feel the anxiety in his acne: the face full of toxins because it’s too stressed to express anything. Yet Fourth Grade, beneath his repressed surface, is actually rather nice.
There is also a Jeff Spiccoli-meets-Jason-Mewes surfer-dude character, whose name is Fuckshit, because the typical sentence that comes out of his mouth is something along the lines of, “Fuck, shit! That was dope!” He’s played by Olan Prenatt, who has pre-Raphaelite ringlets and a blissed-out androgynous grin. And then there’s Ray, the one African-American in the group (given the four’s relentless use of the N-word, we would, at least in the mid-’90s, probably have referred to the other three as “wiggers”). He’s the one with an actual desire to do something — he dreams of becoming a professional skateboarder — and Na-kel Smith, with his stoic royal features and hard-soft stare, makes him the most compelling of the bunch.
What is Stevie doing with these kids? Not much besides hanging out, being pleased that he’s allowed to hang out, and finding someone to model apart from his nasty messed-up brother, who is played, with ruthless commitment, by Lucas Hedges as a scowling hip-hop head case so dead in the eyes he makes Eminem look like a mensch. Stevie steals money from his mother, Dabney (Katherine Waterston), to buy a skateboard, and he starts to practice in the driveway, but he never gets very far with it. His friends have skateboarding in their blood — they can spend all day riding down public-school banisters. Whereas Stevie may just be slumming, and it’s part of the strength of “mid90s” that the movie knows that.
Hill tethers every scene to something that could actually be happening. But he does find a way to stage a couple of set pieces, notably an impromptu house party where Stevie gets invited into a bedroom by a girl who looks maybe two years older than he is. They make out (and a bit more), but afterwards she tells his friends that he was shaking.
If Jonah Hill’s name weren’t on “mid90s,” it could pass as one of the coolest films that ever played at Sundance. But the fact that a star like Hill built this movie from the ground up, and did it with so much integrity and flair, lends it an undeniable hipster quotient. The very fact that we know he made it becomes part of the experience. You can hear a distant echo of Hill’s cutthroat wit in some of the film’s existential stoner absurdism — the lines that are funny because they aren’t meant to be. However much it is (or isn’t) based on Hill’s life, “mid90s” feels like a memoir. The soundtrack thrives on its cred, but when Stevie and his friends cruise on their boards down a twilight L.A. boulevard, viewed in telephoto long shot, to the sounds of “Dedicated to the One I Love” or the best Morrissey performance I’d never heard, you can feel a twinge of romanticism. That’s what growing up is all about: knowing that whoever you were hanging out with, they were the shit, because they showed you what was real.