As an actor, Jonah Hill easily moves through comedies like "21 Jump Street" to Oscar nods in dramas like "The Wolf of Wall Street" and "Moneyball." As a filmmaker making his debut, he mixes both sensibilities in "Mid90s."
Stevie (Sunny Suljic) is ready to shed his Ninja Turtle and Hulk Hogan bedroom wares. Searching for who he's gonna be, he rifles through his big brother Ian's room at the risk of a severe beating - which can happen for any reason, at any time. (The film starts with an intense, impressively sound-edited altercation between brothers.)
It's when Stevie witnesses a fearless group of skateboarders led by actors Na-kel Smith and Olan Prenatt that he knows where he wants to go.
In his directorial debut, Hill mixes it up with widely framed hallways, character close-ups and a moving lens that surveys a party and a skate-trick drop. And Hill romanticizes Stevie's homosocial bonding with the crew in a shot of the boys skating down a busy highway median to "Dedicated To The One I Love," a California skyline behind them.
To boot, add a grounding score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (also Oscar winners for music in "The Social Network").
Stevie visits some dark places internally, and Sunny Suljic ("The Killing of a Sacred Deer") is dynamite, observing those around him and portraying the joy, rage, worry of this character with realistic subtlety and intensity.
In a bit but important role, Lucas Hedges plays big brother/bully Ian. As always, the up-and-coming actor ("Boy Erased," "Ben Is Back") communicates much in silence pauses and twists of his brow. It's astounding.
Save for Stevie's mother Dabney (Katherine Waterston) and a teen Stevie meets at a party, Estee (Alexa Demie), this is an all-male movie. For the crew, Hill cast seasoned skateboarders, and their rawness and vulnerability shines through on four wheels and beyond.
Prenatt and Smith lead the group with authentic banter and a care that isn't easily seen at first.
With shout-outs to "Ren and Stimpy" and Air Jordans, and a soundtrack of Nirvana, Cypress Hill, Morrissey, this film is set firmly in its title era, but it comes with contemporary parallels.
A character hands out prescription pills before a party. "If a doctor gave it to you, how could it possibly be bad?" he asks.
A tiny Stevie takes the hardest body hits here, and it earns him street cred and acceptance. Eventually, one skateboarder says "You know you don't have to do that, right?"
And what a message.
"Mid90s" takes a minute to get into. It's challenging to see a tiny Stevie experiment, and the setup is tough with physical violence and sick banter, almost on par with the start of 1995's "Kids."
But "Mid90s" feels like an olive branch giving insight to the roots of homophobia and toxic masculinity. It's unclear if this was the intention, but it's there nonetheless.
Separately, this message of wonder and self-discovery feels universal.
If you grew up in this era (like this reviewer), it's easy to recall the wonder of rifling through a sibling's Garbage Pail Kids collection or taking literal notes of their CDs. "Mid90s" grants a palpable nostalgia for where we came from, and maybe some hope, through reflection like this, for what's to come.
Starring: Sunny Suljic, Katherine Waterston, Lucas Hedges
Director: Jonah Hill
Writer: Jonah Hill
Rating: R for pervasive language, sexual content, drug and alcohol use, some violent behavior/disturbing images - all involving minors
Available: Amazon Prime, Google Play, VUDU