Jonah Hill’s LA story smells like teen spirit

Sun Sentinel Broward Edition - Showtime - Broward - - MOVIES - By Michael Phillips

Ev­ery­thing im­pres­sive and over­stated and bom­bas­tic and af­fect­ing about Jonah Hill’s break­through per­for­mance in “Su­per­bad” (2007), dozens of movies ago, trans­lates to the actor’s di­rec­to­rial fea­ture de­but, the semi-au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal slice of life “Mid90s.”

Hill also wrote this tech­ni­cally ac­com­plished, spo­rad­i­cally heart­break­ing por­trait of a rough, riskprone ado­les­cence. I found it far tougher to watch, at its harsh­est, than just about any re­cent movie about a kid adrift in what Hill calls the “an­i­mal king­dom.” It owes a debt to Larry Clark’s “Kids,” un­for­tu­nately, as well as sev­eral re­ally good com­ing-of-age chron­i­cles. It’s more nerve-wrack­ing than “Eighth Grade,” by a fac­tor of sev­eral hun­dred. It’s a tougher sit than “Hered­i­tary,” in fact.

Its first shot fixes the ac­tion in­side a small house some­where in LA in the 1990s. We’re look­ing at an empty hallway. Two boys, broth­ers, tum­ble into view, hit the wall and the crunch of the younger one’s face against dry­wall is deaf­en­ing. (Hill cranks the sound at all the ob­vi­ous mo­ments through­out.)

This is Ste­vie (played by Sunny Suljic) and his mean, un­happy older brother, Ian (Lu­cas Hedges). Their mother, Dab­ney (Kather­ine Water­ston), doesn’t seem to in­ter­vene in much of any­thing, un­til Ste­vie starts hang­ing around with his new tribe, a group of skate­board­ers in­clud­ing a per­pet­u­ally video­tap­ing kid named Fourth Grade (Ry­der McLaugh­lin); Ruben (Gio Gali­cia), Ste­vie’s surly, in­se­cure men­tor; the one with the un­print­able moniker com­bin­ing two world­fa­mous swear words (Olan Pre­natt); and the older, MPAA rat­ing: R (for per­va­sive lan­guage, sex­ual con­tent, drug and al­co­hol use, some vi­o­lent be­hav­ior/ dis­turb­ing im­ages — all in­volv­ing mi­nors) Run­ning time: 1:24 wiser, kinder Ray (Na-Kel Smith), Ste­vie’s friend and pro­tec­tor in the later scenes of “Mid90s.”

Flee­ing from an abu­sive sib­ling, Ste­vie ex­plores this won­drous, in­tim­i­dat­ing world of the slightly older, cooler, rougher kids out­side his house. Ste­vie learns to smoke, and drink, and get high, and skate, a lit­tle. He learns never to say thank you be­cause, as Ruben snarls, it makes him sound “gay.”

Shot with sleek, vaguely fal­si­fy­ing as­sur­ance by cin­e­matog­ra­pher Christo­pher Blau­velt, the film darts from home to skate shop, from skate park to skate park, from brawl to car crash, while the sound­track lays in the GZA rap and am­bi­ent, don’t-wor­ryit-gets-worse dread from com­posers Trent Reznor and At­ti­cus Ross. Hill at­tracted a classy group of col­lab­o­ra­tors, and his on­screen tal­ent, mostly ama­teur, works well in the con­text of the movie. Much of the di­a­logue feels im­pro- vised, some­times ef­fec­tively; all of it, how­ever, pre­sents Ste­vie as a generic, rather than spe­cific, bun­dle of heart­felt good in­ten­tions and spon­ge­like adapt­abil­ity.

Eleven at the time of film­ing, Suljic han­dles ev­ery­thing from a dicey sex­ual ini­ti­a­tion scene (Alexa Demie plays the barely char­ac­ter­ized older girl drawn to the sen­si­tive new­bie) to an ar­rest­ing, ab­bre­vi­ated emo­tional blowout with Water­ston. This cru­cial scene’s over be­fore it starts, frus­trat­ingly.

Vivid in bits and pieces, “Mid90s” feels like a re­search scrap­book for a movie, not a movie. The more Hill throws you around in the name of cre­at­ing a harsh, im­me­di­ate im­pres­sion, the more the im­pres­sions blur.

Hill will make far bet­ter pic­tures: As an actor, it took him a few films af­ter “Su­per­bad” to dis­cover the pay­off in do­ing less, and less ob­vi­ously. The di­rec­tor in him may need an­other project to fig­ure that out, what­ever story he tells next. Michael Phillips is a Tri­bune critic.


Ste­vie (Sunny Suljic, left) and Ray (Na-Kel Smith) in writer-di­rec­tor Jonah Hill’s “Mid90s.”

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