‘Mid90s’ a sweet, but fuzzy-brained, skater nos­tal­gia trip

Chattanooga Times Free Press - ChattanoogaNow - - MOVIES - BY JUSTIN CHANG

“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.

AP PHOTO/ TOBIN YELLAND/A24 FILMS

Sunny Suljic, left, and Na-kel Smith in a scene from “Mid90s.”

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