Jonah Hill’s “Mid90s” is a very time-specific period piece about a particular subgroup of teen culture — but like many a successful coming-of-age story, it brims with near-universal truths and experiences.
Who can’t relate to the socially awkward 13-year-old who will do just about anything to gain acceptance into the “cool” group? Or the parent doing everything possible to remain connected to the little boys who have transformed into surly teens? Or the moment when you realized some of the slightly older kids you once worshipped are lost and confused and heading straight toward a dead-end?
“Mid90s” is set in the summer of 1996 and is told mostly through the eyes of Stevie (Sunny Suljic), an introverted kid who looks even younger than his 13 years. (Writer/director Hill was 13 in 1996.)
Stevie looks up to his big brother Ian (Lucas Hedges in yet another fine performance), even though Ian alternates between ignoring Stevie and beating the crap out of him. (On Ian’s 18th birthday, Stevie hands Ian a hand-wrapped mix tape of carefully selected songs. Ian virtually ignores the gift. Stevie’s still too young to realize how sad and lonely Ian’s life is.)
Katherine Waterston (delivering fine work) is their single mom, Dabney, who is fiercely determined to keep the family together, but often feels as if she’s underwater and taking the boys down with her.
Little wonder Stevie is desperate to become a part of something far outside the house, something bigger, something cooler, something badass — something like the local skateboarding culture.
MORE FROM RICHARD ROEPER
Stevie keeps hanging around a group of skateboarders until he’s welcomed into their ranks. The ragtag band includes Ray (Na-kel Smith), a skilled boarder with dreams of turning pro; Ray’s best friend, affectionately known as F—S— (Olan Prenatt), a notorious ladies man and binge-drinker/smoker/druggie; the aspiring filmmaker Fourth Grade (Ryder McLaughlin), so nicknamed for his classroom level intelligence, who chronicles their adventures on his video camera, and Ruben (Gio Galicia), the low man on the totem pole until Stevie came along.
In rapid fashion, Stevie tries his first cigarette, chugs his first beer, pops his first pill, smokes his first joint, has an (unsettling) sexual encounter with an older girl, gets into fights and turns into an all-out punk — but of course he doesn’t see it that way. For Stevie, this is a glorious, magical time.
Hill captures these episodes, along with more than few skateboarding montages, in a deliberately ragged and jagged style that effectively captures Stevie’s exhilaration at his newfound “coolness” without celebrating the sheer, dumb, self-destructive nature of this group. As you’d expect, the music and the fashion and the pop culture references (and the politically incorrect language) are spot-on for the period. Hill’s ear for dialogue yields some insightful observations, and some wickedly funny one-liners.
The ending feels manufactured, particularly concerning one character’s reaction to a pivotal incident. But for most of the ride, “Mid90s” feels like an accurate time capsule — and a relatable journey even if you’ve never been on a skateboard in your life.
A24 presents a film written and directed by Jonah Hill. Rated R (for pervasive language, sexual content, drug and alcohol use, some violent behavior/disturbing images — all involving minors). Running time: 84 minutes. Opens Friday at local theaters.