Who would have thought that Jonah Hill, best known for his comic exploits in films such as 21 Jump Street and Superbad, would create for his directorial debut a beautifully unpretentious and naturalistic film. Apparently semi-autobiographical, Mid90s captures the mood and feel of a 90’s Indie movie while also leaving room for ruminations on what it is to be young, the wisdom and empathy that comes with experience, and the value of non-judgement.
Stevie (Sunny Suljic) is a punching bag for his older brother, an awkward 13-year-old kid, struggling to find a place. He starts to frequent a skate shop and meets a bunch of older boys who take him under their wing, and he begins a journey of youthful experimentation and character-building.
Mid90s serves as a celebration of youth and the ups and downs, real concerns and formation of character it creates. Hill shows a natural sensitivity as a director to this subject matter, and plants the movie firmly in the 21st century by adopting an unobtrusive filming style; his way of directing mostly unknown actors is evocative of 90’s indie, but has more in common with Barry Jenkins’ spellbinding Moonlight.
Every kid actor is wonderfully convincing, none more so than Suljic, who appears a born talent. His portrayal of Stevie encompasses the tenderness and innocence of youth, the want to be ‘cool’, and explosions of emotion. Na-Kel Smith as Ray, the most worldly and wise of the older kids has an aura of calm and quiet power about him. A monologue midway through the film wherein he expresses beautifully the cards that life can deal us, good or bad, and the relation of pure empathy when he describes his own hardships is a powerfully honest scene. Special mention goes to Olan Prenatt as the hilariously named Fuckshit.
The arc of the young boys leads towards a feeling of acceptance; one that is achieved not through overstated drama but subtle, real situations and reactions to them. The boys learn to accept each other, and realise they need to. As a man who was Stevie’s age in 1995, the refreshing treatment of these themes and the need for them in the world we live in today is massively evocative.
A refreshingly simple, nostalgic, frequently hilarious and subtly moving film, Mid90s announces Hill’s arrival as a director with understated brilliance. A world away from the exaggerated comedy of a lot of his output as an actor, the films sensitivity and treatment of themes will win many admirers.