The realistic and raw “Mid90s,” from first-time director Jonah Hill, rides the wave of coming-of-age insecurities with a hearty dose of skate culture nostalgia. This ode to adolescent angst would make an excellent companion piece to this year’s “Eighth Grade,” but with a distinctively male perspective. The mumblecore-style story and organic performances (from an outstanding supporting cast of non-actors) are both credible and sincere, and while there isn’t a whole lot of meaningful insight, there’s something strikingly universal about the deep need for a sense of belonging in your own little corner of society.
Thirteen year old Stevie (Sunny Suljic) struggles to cope with life in 90s-era Los Angeles. He spends his summer navigating between a troubled home environment (including regular beat-downs from his physically abusive older brother Ian (Lucas Hedges) and a boyfriend-hopping, absent mom (Katherine Waterston)), and a group of new hooligan friends (Na-kel Smith, Olan Prenatt, Gio Galicia, and Ryder McLaughlin) that he meets at a local skateboard shop.
Eager to please and desperate to fit in with these older, troubled boys, Stevie begins to venture down a dangerous path of underage drinking, illegal drugs, wild parties, and “hanging out.” Their bad influence encourages Stevie to become reckless in all aspects of his life, much to the dismay of his brother and mother.
The film is punctuated with deeper, serious undertones about class, race, and gender, but it never feels heavy-handed nor stereotypical. The mindless discussions about nothing are as engaging as they are offensive (Hill, who also wrote the screenplay, nails the off-color dialogue of a group of 17 year olds), and you’ll feel like a part of the gang. These outsiders form a surrogate family, even if they seem like unproductive castoffs to the rest of the community.
The hits of nostalgia come fast and furious in the opening scenes of the film but thankfully that tapers off in favor of a more personal story. But for every “Beavis and Butthead” reference, there’s a glimmer of gold (with most of the spark coming from brutally honest scenes of friendship and the emotional punch of dysfunctional familial relationships).
The film is far from perfect, but this is a very, very strong first project from writer / director Hill.