“Mid90s” is the kind of movie so familiar it’s practically over before it begins. The affable story of scrawny L.A. 13-year-old Stevie (Sunny Suljit) coming of age in the eponymous era follows all the familiar beats of this well-trod genre. However, the first feature from writer-director Jonah Hill shows some of the best qualities of veteran actors who step behind the camera, with nuanced performances so real the characters practically fall off the screen. Hill’s story suggests equal parts “Freaks and Geeks,” “Kids,” and the adolescent-focused narratives of British director Shane Meadows, but Hill cribs from these precedents with a confidence that injects this lively snapshot of skateboarding reprobates with fresh confidence.
It’s also a gleeful nostalgia trip. With a period-specific soundtrack that ranges from the Pixies to Wu-Tang Clan, “Mid90s” depicts the last decade of the 20th century with a warm hug. It doesn’t always feel that way for Stevie, though: Growing up with a single young mother (Katherine Waterston) and moody, introverted older brother Ian (Lucas Hedges) who pushes him around at every opportunity, he can’t catch a break. Hill instantly establishes the plucky character’s resilience in the immersive opening minutes, as Stevie survives a brutal beating from his brother only to sneak into his room after hours, taking notes on the ephemera of posters and albums in an attempt to absorb some measure of coolness from the world at his disposal. The movie establishes Stevie’s adventuresome spirit before he’s spoken a word.
Soon, he finds a potential outlet beyond the constraints of his household, spying a group of loudmouthed teens at the local skate shop and gradually veering closer to their orbit. The youngest of the clique, the stern, foulmouthed Gio (Gio Galicia) gives Stevie some chores and allows him to hang around the group in silence, though he begins to show some envy when the older kids take an interest. So shy he can barely hold a conversation, Stevie’s an amusing enigma to this motley gang, and they embrace the opportunity to drag him around to their various antics.
Hill has assembled an impressive range of new faces to imbue these characters with colorful traits that play off each other to amusing effect, with personalities underscored by the nicknames that define them: There’s Fuckshit (Olan Prenatt), a biracial troublemaker with puffy yellow hair and a penchant for cracking jokes; Fourth Grade (Ryder McLaughlin), an aspiring filmmaker; and Ray (Na-kel Smith, a genuine discovery), who doesn’t need a special name since he’s the normal one of the group, a smiling ball of energy who proves to be the sagacious leader. At first, Stevie doesn’t quite know how to gel with these new acquaintances, and a shrewd early scene when he’s called on to comment on a meandering conversation is charming for the way he stammers for a response. Nobody’s ever given him the chance to talk.
“Mid90s” doesn’t venture into much surprising territory once its premise settles in, and the montages take flight. As “Wave of Mutilation” swells, Stevie — dubbed Sunburn by his new pals – covers his room in posters and practices skateboarding tactics late into the night. (In one amusing punchline, he celebrates the tiniest jump as a seminal victory.) Little by little, the street antics carry hints of trouble, and it’s only a matter of time before Stevie gets hurt. And then gets hurt again. The poor kid endures a lot over the course of the movie, banging his head, scraping his chest, and worse, in the process of toughening himself up for a new life chapter. Suljit, his wavy hair framing a series of muted expressions, provides a powerful centerpiece to every scene. Channeling Antoine Doinel in “The 400 Blows,” he grounds the movie’s by-the-numbers trajectory with an authenticity that elevates it.
Hill compliments the sturdy narrative with an impressive list of collaborators that give this well-trod genre exercise unusual polish. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ energizing score supports Stevie’s frantic soul-searching, while veteran cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt (“The Bling Ring,” “Certain Women”) gives each scene a grainy, washed-out quality that looks as though “Mid90s” were actually made in the period it takes place.
The movie strolls through the usual tropes of this storytelling mold, as Stevie clashes with his concerned mother to comedic effect, gets drunk for the first time, and — in an adorable highlight — scores his first sexual experience in an awkward encounter that temporarily makes him feel like he’s leveled up in the world. Stevie’s surrounded by people baffled by his sudden transition into a new life chapter, with Waterston giving her lonely parent all the intensity of a young woman grasping to take control of responsibilities that elude her at every turn. Hedges, quickly becoming the most impressive actor of his generation, buries himself in the gruff, unhappy role of an angst-riddled teen a world apart from the softer performances he delivered in “Manchester By the Sea” and more recent work. But the movie ultimately belongs to Suljit, the engine of the narrative and its raison d’être, in a part that Hill himself might have played a long time ago (and given the hints of autobiographical context to the story, probably did once, off-screen).
Again and again, “Mid90s” falls into routine: the arguments arrive right on cue, as do the resolutions, and a tidy climax puts a bow on the entire ordeal. But there’s an infectious quality to Stevie’s newfound clique, who play off each other with a vivaciousness that nearly tips into documentary territory when Hill simply watches them cruise around.
The second riff on the “Kids” formula to make the rounds in 2018 (though the only one to include a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo by Harmony Korine), “Mid90s” follows on the heels of Crystal Moselle’s similarly engaging “Skate Kitchen,” which focused on the semi-fictional exploits of an all-girl skate group. Hill’s movie essentially hovers in the same universe of concrete lots and messy house parties, where bored young people rebel against nothing in particular. There’s a reason filmmakers find this milieu so appealing, as Hill’s debut makes clear — it’s an ideal template for exploring the meandering pathway to young adulthood, and for a filmmaker to show potential without overextending ambition. To that end, “Mid90s” chronicles a maturation for the talent behind the camera as well.
“Mid90s” premiered at the Toronto International Film. A24 releases it October 19, 2018.