‘Mid90s’ a sweet, but fuzzy-brained, skater nostalgia trip
“Mid90s,” the first feature written and directed by Jonah Hill, is set in Los Angeles sometime during — well, take a wild guess.
One of the first things we see is a bed covered with “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” sheets, followed by shelves neatly lined with CDs and cassette tapes. The sheets belong to a skinny 13-year-old kid named Stevie (Sunny Suljic), and the old-school music collection to his rough-edged older brother, Ian (an excellent Lucas Hedges).
But really, “Mid90s” insists, they belong to us. They are precious pop-cultural totems of a decade that now counts as period-piece material, or at least grist for a Gen-Y nostalgic trip.
And since spotting the throwback references in a movie like this is part of the putative fun, I did my best to comply. I dutifully scribbled the words “‘Street Fighter II’ T-shirt” in my notebook and nodded my head appreciatively at the blips of Red Hot Chili Peppers, Cypress Hill and Wu-Tang Clan on the fastidiously arranged and undoubtedly expensive soundtrack.
By the time Stevie starts riding with a ragtag group of young skateboarders, hanging out at a local shop when they’re not out practicing their moves, you will be hard-pressed not to mentally check off “Kids,” Larry Clark’s seminal 1995 portrait of troubled New York youth.
Think of “Mid90s” as that film’s kinder, more naive, but also more calculating West Coast stepbrother. It’s the scrappy coming-of-age punk-hangout movie at its most ingratiating — mildly charming, unapologetically derivative and naggingly fuzzy-headed.
Derivative, of course, is not entirely a bad thing, and neither for that matter is fuzzy-headed. A nostalgia trip, in the truest sense, produces disorientation as well as recognition. It invites your willful surrender to a kind of haze, one that the movie evokes by shooting in a lyrically rough-hewn style on grainy 16-mm film, with every image framed in a boxy 4:3 aspect ratio.
Hill is, of course, known primarily as a boisterous staple of mainstream American comedy, which is why there’s something disarming about his attempt to tell a sincere and highly personal story (though not an autobiographical one). In unwieldy but admirably bold fashion, he seeks to merge his natural comic flair with an unvarnished look at a teen culture gripped by lower- depths cycles of poverty, neglect and substance abuse.
It helps that Suljic is such an immediately compelling screen presence. The early scenes of Stevie being beaten up by his brother, or later attempting a dangerous skating stunt to impress his friends, immediately awaken your protective instincts. You may find yourself echoing the concern of Stevie’s mother, Dabney (Katherine Waterston), who is a loving but mostly ineffectual authority figure.
At t he s a me t i me, against your better judgment, you might begin to relax alongside Stevie in the infectious company of his skater posse, who are played by a fresh and likable group of unknowns. Stevie is befriended by Ruben ( Gio Galicia), a swaggering little bully who’s eager to pass off his status as the runt of the group. Ruben’s attitude stands in sharp contrast to that of their awesomely cool leader, Ray ( Na- kel Smith, a charismatic find), who welcomes Stevie with real warmth and affection.
Rounding out the bunch are an aspiring filmmaker named Fourth Grade ( Ryder McLaughlin) and a rowdy, blond- maned dude who will be referred to simply as FS, his nickname being unprintable in a family newspaper. Perpetually drunk and/or high, FS is played by the skater and model Olan Prenatt, whose expletive- l aden performance is both the most extreme and the most emblematic expression of the movie’s aggressive grunge-bro vibe.
About those expletives: The common defense of all this gleefully foul lan- guage is that it’s an authentic expression of how these kids would talk and interact in this setting. The authenticity argument is one I might be more inclined to buy from a documentary or a more rigorous piece of realism, which “Mid90s,” for all its self-consciously gritty texture, is not. At a certain point, it’s hard not to wonder if the aggressive banality of much of the dialogue represents a sign of integrity or a simple failure of imagination.
A coy and cavalier scene in which Stevie experiences his sexual initiation at the hands of an older teenage girl raises a similar question about the story’s perspective or lack thereof. That these things happen in real life feels less like a reason than an excuse, an attempt to keep the audience from thinking too hard about a scenario the filmmakers don’t seem to have given their full consideration.
Sunny Suljic, left, and Na-kel Smith in a scene from “Mid90s.”