The latest Hollywood actor to take his position on the other side of the camera is Jonah Hill. Mid90s is his first film as director and, it turns out, he wrote the screenplay too. The result is a charming little calling card of a film, with a grungy, indie sensibility and a clear determination to avoid the clichés that have dogged so many earlier attempts to get to grips with the subject of skateboarding.
Thirteen-year-old Stevie (Sunny Suljic) lives in LA with his single parent mom, Dabney (Katherine Waterston), and his bullying, older brother, Ian (Lucas Hedges, working wonders with an almost monosyllabic role). Left mostly to his own devices and clearly fed up with his brother’s constant physical abuse, Stevie chances upon the Motor Avenue Skateshop, run by Ray (Na Kel Smith), a talented skateboarder who has accrued a small coterie of followers. There’s wannabe skate boy, Ruben (Gio Galicia), messed-up rich-kid, Fuckshit (Olan Prenatt) and putative filmmaker, Fourth Grade (Ryder McLaughlin).
Watching the gang interact, Stevie has a kind of epiphany. He buys an old skateboard from Ian and sets about following the other kids around with an almost obsessive zeal, taking every opportunity to get into their good books. Though he can’t ride a skateboard to save his life, his presence is soon accepted and and the others even adopt him as a kind of mascot, giving him the nickname ‘Sunburn.’ Pretty soon, they are introducing him to the dubious delights of drugs, acts of minor hooliganism and granting him access to their regular parties, where, on one momentous night, he even manages to shrug off his cumbersome virginity.
There’s no great message in Mid90s – it’s a picaresque adventure in which we share Stevie’s growing awareness of who he is and what he wants to be. It’s set against a meticulously researched 90s landscape and is provided with a kicking soundtrack to ease matters along. With a surprisingly brief running time of just one hour twenty-five minutes, the film fairly races by on well-oiled wheels and the performances are uniformly spot-on. Hill even throws in a few simple visual tricks that hint at the possibility of even better things to come from him.
This surely won’t be for everyone, but it feels like so much more than a Hollywood actor’s vanity project. It’s a genuine delight.