Jonah Hill’s directorial debut ‘Mid90s’ has a lot in common with 1995, like mediocrity

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Grade: 3.0/5.0

“Mid90s” is not a waste of your time.

That may seem like a low bar for a movie to reach, but for what “Mid90s” appeared to be from the trailer, the bar is as low as the Marianas Trench. Consider what we knew before release: Actor-comedian Jonah Hill was making his directorial debut with a film that appeared to be entirely about skateboarding through the picturesque, sunlit concrete of urban California with period-appropriate use of slurs. It stars a kid who, oh, just so happens to be the same age now that Hill would have been in 1995. It’s shot in the retro boxiness of the Academy ratio — on actual film stock, no less.

Yes, it sounded just like that dreaded genre, the semi-autobiographical vanity project — a creative quagmire that has already claimed such luminaries as James Franco. Which brings us back to the first sentence of the article: “Mid90s” is not what it looks like. It is a sensitively shot film that transcends nostalgic pastiche, even if it only transcends insofar as to land on the better part of mediocre.

The vividly drawn characters are the film’s strongest feature, as they must be, because “Mid90s” is an entirely character-driven movie. The plot is like a boom mic that only gets screen time by accident. We are introduced to our central character, the disturbingly young Stevie (Sunny Suljic), getting the crud kicked out of him by his Eminem doppelganger of a brother, Ian (Lucas Hedges). They live with their mother, who has only the best intentions for her kids but is distracted by her own problems. Perhaps looking to toughen up, Stevie falls in with a eclectic gang of local kids who congregate in the back parking lot of a skate shop. There’s the insecure youngest member of the group, Ruben (Gio Galicia), who talks a big game but is a secret softie, the perpetually aloof, aspiring filmmaker, Fourth Grade (Ryder McLaughlin), and the slacker-slash-ladies’ man who goes by an unprintable name. Rounding out the motley crew is the leader and role model, Ray (Na-kel Smith), who takes the fledgling Stevie under his wing.

The rest of the movie follows the shifting network of spats and alliances that bind the group together, all seen through the admiring eyes of Stevie. F——- turns jealous of Ray’s bright future in the pro-skating circuit, Ruben begins to hate Stevie’s closeness with the older kids, Stevie’s mother tells her youngest son to knock off hanging with lowlifes, and so on.

It’s a relief that all the actors can match the script’s careful juggling of emotions. Smith, to highlight one, overcomes a part that could have easily devolved into solemn advice-dispensing to our young, white protagonist, somehow managing to give solid pep talks while not looking like a stereotype. Galicia gives an excellent portrayal of a kid who is coming to terms with what masculinity means, especially considering how emotionally charged his lines are. He responds to Stevie’s polite thanks with: “Don’t say thank you. That’s what faggots say. Are you a faggot?” In other hands, the line might have come out sneering and gratuitous, but Galicia delivers the line with revealing vulnerability and fear, articulating one of the few critiques the movie has to offer about the ‘90s.

It felt like just yesterday we were all reminiscing about Blondie and “Blade Runner.” “Mid90s” is here on the cusp of the new turn of the nostalgia cycle. It benefits from anticipating this trend. The reference points here — Stüssy, skate parks, “Street Fighter II” — haven’t been mined for all their ore yet, and there’s still gold waiting to be discovered in the cultural detritus. Hill’s first effort manages to dig up a few nuggets.

Contact Adesh Thapliyal at [email protected]. Tweet him at @AdeshThapliyal.