A recent, presumably sincere, tweet from a concerned film fan negatively compared the directorial debut of Brie Larson, Unicorn Store, to the first film directed by Superbad and Wolf of Wall Street actor Jonah Hill. Larson, so the tweet went, should have bided her time and studied the greats before trying her hand at directing – as Hill did, even being advised by Martin Scorsese. The tweet went viral when a Netflix account picked it up and ripped it apart.
The comment was self-evidently not to be taken seriously – Brie Larson is fantastic, knows a thing or two about movies, and if you’ve seen Unicorn Store you know that’s it’s not exactly trying to be Taxi Driver – but all the same, it made me wish that Jonah Hill hadn’t seen it. Because, even though he’s a twice Oscar-nominated actor and millionaire, Jonah Hill knows embarrassment and I just want him to be happy.
I’m pleased to say that Mid90s, the product of so much searing introspection and Scorsese-mentoring, is very good. Hill’s film is a little calculated – practically a resume application for the position of cool but respectable auteur – but it’s invested with raw feeling and genuinely original moments. Often, it feels uncomfortably personal.
Our 13-year-old hero is Stevie, played by Sunny Suljic (The House with a Clock in Its Walls, The Killing of a Sacred Deer). He’s unhappy at home: bullied mercilessly by his older brother Ian (Lucas Hedges), and distant from single mother Dabney (Katherine Waterston), he finds companionship and proxy father figures in a group of LA skaters.
The skate meet-ups attended by Stevie and his friends are a crucible in which talent is measured and identity is formed and tested. Stevie’s brother is a fragile bully who beats the crap out of him at the slightest provocation – but the physical tribulations he faces trying to impress his new peers are even worse. Pride, humiliation and social standing are the key threads running through Mid90s, and the plight of poor Ruben – sidelined in the group by the even younger newcomer – illustrates this in a nutshell. If you remember the agony of growing up and finding your place in the world, the various ignominies heaped on these characters can hit like a punch to the gut. The up-and-coming actors assembled by Hill sell each of these moments, but also the joy of budding friendship.
Another recent film which dealt with the problem of how to raise a young man, 20th Century Women, showed what to do to bring up a sensitive and emotionally literate man. Mid90s shows what not to do. Stevie’s new coterie are all outcasts clinging to bravado and bullshit to help mask inner pain, a point which Hill hammers home maybe once too many times. It’s a coping strategy that compels them to do stupid things, and the more eagerly Stevie throws himself into exaggeratedly bro-ish antics (smoking hash pipes, cracking his head open after jumping off a building) the more he’s embraced by his new family. When Stevie is seduced by a much older girl at a party, it’s a deeply uncomfortable and problematic moment that will make most audiences recoil: for Stevie’s crew, it’s the moment he truly becomes accepted by them.
Incidentally, another story of youth behaving badly, the lo-fi 1995 touchstone Kids (Larry Clark), is strongly evoked here through the canny use of lenses, film stock and natural light. In fact, save for the presence of one or two known actors, Mid90s could be a genuine rediscovery from 25 years ago. That’s not necessarily a compliment, but it’s a remarkable feat of mimicry. If you told me that Jonah Hill had faked the moon landings, I’d probably believe you. Like Kids, there’s a sketchy feel and a languid pacing which complements the action: the raw film itself appears to have been exposed to California sunshine and weed smoke mid-production.
Despite a few harrowing moments, the film finally lands in Morrissey-soundtracked sentimentality, and it’s testament to the richly drawn characters that I felt relieved for them. Yes, Mid90s sometimes pulls its punches, and even has the feel of an after-school special in parts, but it boasts sincerity and deft craftsmanship. Now that he’s bided his time, studied the greats and the passion project is out of the way, it’ll be exciting to see what Jonah Hill does next.