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Skate or die – ‘Mid90s’

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There are a lot of pitfalls that come when an actor makes the transition to behind the camera. While there’s an undeniable understanding of film mechanics that comes from being on sets, there are no guarantees when making the leap from one role to the other.

And while you might not think it upon first glance, someone like Jonah Hill is actually well-suited for making that transition. Sure, a lot of people will never not see the foul-mouthed fat kid from “Superbad,” but the truth is that Hill has worked across genres in some great movies with some great filmmakers. He’s been in the room with a LOT of talents.

And he’s got a story he wants to tell.

That story comes to fruition in “Mid90s,” a coming-of-age tale set in the gritty, grungy southern California skateboarding scene of – you guessed it – the mid-1990s. Hill not only makes his directorial debut with this one, but also wrote the screenplay. It is a passion project of the first order, but don’t for one second view it as a vanity project. It’s obviously a story that Hill needed to tell.

And by packing the cast with performers who were skaters first and actors second, Hill achieves an authenticity that otherwise would have been lacking. It’s that authenticity – that pervasive feeling of genuine place – that makes what would have been a serviceable movie into one that occasionally borders on greatness.

Stevie (Sunny Suljic, “The House with a Clock in Its Walls”) is a 13-year-old kid living in Los Angeles in the mid-1990s. He’s living with his single mom Dabney (Katherine Waterston, “The Current War”) and his older brother Ian (Lucas Hedges, “Boy Erased”); his mom is largely absentee due to work and his brother is constantly bullying him – sometimes to an unsettling degree.

In his quest to fit in, Stevie stumbles into the Motor Avenue Skateshop. Fascinated, he starts hanging around the place, hoping to be noticed by the group that spends time there. Eventually, he’s brought into the fold by the youngest of the group, a self-styled tough kid named Ruben (Gio Galicia in his film debut). The rest of the crew are older boys – foul-mouthed F---S--- (Olan Prenatt in his film debut), aspiring filmmaker Fourth Grade (Ryder McLaughlin, “Summer of 17”) and potential pro skater Ray (Na-Kel Smith in his feature debut) – who spend their days skating and their nights partying.

Stevie is immediately obsessed, throwing himself completely into the world of skating despite not being at all good at it. He spends his days with his new crew, skateboarding in prohibited spaces and learning how to smoke and drink. He finds himself having new experiences – not all of them good ones.

Meanwhile, Stevie’s mom is starting to worry about how he spends his time and with whom he’s spending it. And Ian’s aggressiveness remains, although Stevie’s reaction to it grows less passively accepting as he gains confidence from his new friends.

But when certain aspects of the skateboard scene start becoming corrosive, Stevie is left at a crossroads, trying to decide which potential path is the one he should follow.

One of the most interesting aspects of “Mid90s” is that it manages to be compelling without a whole lot actually happening. Yes, we’re watching Stevie make his youthful decisions and mistakes and all of that, but it’s very much an atmospheric hangout of a movie. It’s about the world in which these people exist. That’s not to say that the people who populate it aren’t important, but they operate in service to the setting.

And that’s OK. It works. Granted, Hill is a rookie behind the camera and there are moments where it shows, stylistic choices that don’t quite mesh. There’s an underlying messiness that – while beneficial to the film’s aesthetic as a whole – sometimes gets to be a bit much.

That being said, there’s no disputing the impressiveness of the performances that Hill pulls out of a collection of inexperienced actors. Suljic is a marvelously natural performer; his ability far outstrips his experience. Asking a kid to carry a film like this is risky, but Suljic pulls it off. There’s a sincerity to him that is compelling to watch.

The rest of the skate crew doesn’t quite rise to the level of Suljic’s performance, but they’re all good in their way – Prenatt is broad and coarse in a fun way, while McLaughlin turns his character’s taciturn nature into a strength. Galicia’s brash attempts at edginess are funny and heartbreaking. And Smith is lovely as the experienced older kid looking to serve as a mentor to a youngster.

Meanwhile, you’ve got a pro like Waterston, who is great in her limited screen time here, embracing the willful naivete of a mother who isn’t ready to see her sons’ problems. And then there’s Hedges, who has become an indie powerhouse, a legitimate go-to performer for whenever you need a quality performance from a teenager. He’s as talented a young actor as there is working today.

“Mid90s” is a love letter to a time and place unique in youth cultural history. It isn’t quite great – it has its share of flaws – but as far as debuts go, it’s a hell of a strong one. With this film, Jonah Hill announces himself as a legitimate filmmaker – one whose talents behind the camera are the equal of his considerable gifts in front of it.

[4.5 out of 5]

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