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01 Nov 2018

Sk8r Story: 'Mid90s,' Jonah Hill's Directing Debut, Is a Terrific Film About Skater Culture and Family Dysfunction

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Sunny Suljic and Na-kel Smith in Mid90s. Sunny Suljic and Na-kel Smith in Mid90s.

Jonah Hill makes his feature-directing debut using his own script with Mid90s, the best movie ever made about skater culture—and a powerful film about familial dysfunction and the need for friendship.

Sunny Suljic (The House With a Clock in Its Walls) gives a breakout performance as Stevie, a kid living in a single-parent household with a head-case older brother, Ian (Lucas Hedges). Stevie suffers massive beatings at the hands of Ian, and causes himself further pain with self-inflicted strangulation, skin burns and pressing on the bruises Ian created. In short … the kid has some major issues.

In search of some kind of identity, Stevie grabs himself a skateboard and starts hanging around some older kids at the skate shop. They include skaters nicknamed Fuckshit (Olan Prenatt), Fourth Grade (Ryder McLaughlin) and a younger kid simply named Ruben (Gio Galicia), because he hasn’t earned his nickname yet.

Stevie practices at night trying to do flips. He isn’t a natural, but he’s persistent. After a strange anecdote in a conversation circle, he earns the nickname Sunburn, and it sticks. He eventually becomes part of the group, and finds a less-crazy big-brother figure in Ray (Na-kel Smith), the group’s best skater, and an employee at the skate shop. Their kinship becomes the heart of the movie, especially when Ray becomes his sole stable influence as others in the group introduce Stevie to drinking, drugs and sex.

As Stevie’s social life takes off, his home life withers, including increasing violence from Ian and communication problems with mother, Dabney (Katherine Waterston of Alien: Covenant). Hill shows some beat-downs that are particularly brutal; you get a true sense that Ian is one strike away from killing his little brother. After suspecting her kid is taking drugs and drinking, Dabney marches Stevie into the skate shop and scolds the group … something the skaters take surprisingly well.

Hill does an expert job of showing how important skating and these new friends are to Stevie in his development. The director doesn’t shy away from the bad influences—influences present in just about every high-schooler’s life. Suljic proves to be the perfect pick for Stevie; he’s a solid young actor (he was also the best thing about Clock in Its Walls). He’s a short guy, but when he bests Ruben in a street fight, you believe he can take the bigger kid. He brings a lot of passion to the role.

Hedges, so damned good in Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri and Manchester By the Sea (for which he earned an Oscar nomination), delivers the film’s best performance as the nightmare older brother. He’s a psycho, but he has a vulnerable side that’s fighting to break out behind his pained eyes. He makes a major mark in his few, strong scenes.

It’s abundantly clear that Hill possesses solid directorial chops. A scene in which Stevie goes into his brother’s room despite death threats is both foreboding and awe-inspiring (Ian keeps a mighty clean, ultra-organized room), and this is where Hill starts effectively using an excellent, moody score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. As solid as Hill’s directorial choices are, this movie wouldn’t be what it is without its score. It’s basically a character in the film.

Mid90s employs a gritty, documentary look, and while it shows some skating stunts, the actual skateboarding scenes don’t overwhelm the movie. They act more as vital flavoring. The crux of the story here is the bond between Stevie and his posse, and the strained relationships at home.

Hill, like his buddy Bradley Cooper with A Star Is Born, has given himself a solid start in the directorial world. I’m eagerly anticipating what he chooses to do next behind the camera.

Mid90s is playing at theaters across the valley.

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