PLOT A lonely young boy finds friendship among a crew of skateboarders.
CAST Sunny Suljic, Lucas Hedges, Katherine Waterston
RATED R (language, drug use, some violence)
BOTTOM LINE A terrific coming-of-age film from first-time director Jonah Hill. Sharp-eyed, tender and wise.
For his directorial debut, “Mid90s,” Jonah Hill turns to a common source of artistic inspiration: adolescence. It’s where Truffaut got his “400 Blows,” Noah Baumbach his “The Squid and the Whale” and Greta Gerwig her “Lady Bird.” The best coming-of-age movies have an autobiographical ring of truth, a way of teleporting us back to a formative stage and — most important — a clarity that comes only with adulthood. That can be a magical combination, and Hill’s “Mid90s” has it in spades.
The story centers on Stevie, a lonely kid played by an astonishing Sunny Suljic, a 13-year-old actor who looks more like nine. In the film’s opening shot, tiny Stevie is thrown against a wall and savagely beaten by his older brother, Ian (a terrific Lucas Hedges). Near-parentless (Katherine Waterston plays his single mother, Dabney) and accustomed to abuse, Stevie yearns for acceptance and love.
He’ll get that by hanging around with the older boys who frequent a nearby skateboard shop. Eventually, Stevie becomes a pint-size mascot to this crew of drinkers, smokers, stoners and smart-mouths, all played by real-life skaters. There’s Rueben (Gio Galicia), barely older than Stevie but already a hard case; a party animal we’ll politely call F.S. (Olan Prenatt); a dopey but talented videographer nicknamed Fourth Grade (Ryder McLaughin, perhaps playing Hill’s alter-ego); and Ray (Na-Kel Smith), a laid-back kid who proves an unexpected source of wisdom.
On the surface, “Mid90s” can seem a little fetishistic, a nostalgia trip of hip-hop tracks, clothing lines and magazines from the era of the movie’s title. The film is set in a bygone, gritty Los Angeles; cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt uses 16 mm film and a squared-off 4:3 aspect ratio for a grainy, home-movie aesthetic. The dreamy score, by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, has a wistful feel that suggests an innocence lost (or, perhaps, clung to).
What gives this movie its power is not so much its authenticity (Crystal Moselle’s girl-powered “Skate Kitchen,” from earlier this year, feels more vérité than this) but the presence of Suljic, who packs a megaton of intensity into his miniature frame. As Stevie grows up (at least that’s what he thinks he’s doing), Suljic adds new layers of complexity and, in one extraordinary scene with Waterston, reveals a distinctly male rage. It just might be the performance of the year.
“Mid90s” captures a moment in a boy’s life with a rare tenderness, honesty and clarity. The list of great coming-of-age films just got a little longer.