Photos | A24 / Warner Bros.
From left: In “Mid90s,” a 13-year-old spends his summer in Los Angeles navigating between a troubled home life and a crew of new friends he meets at a skate shop. In the next chapter of the “Lego Movie” series, it’s been five years since everything was awesome and the citizens are facing a huge new threat: Lego Duplo invaders from outer space, wrecking everything faster than they can rebuild.
Mid90s” would make an excellent companion piece to “Eighth Grade,” as both are achingly realistic portrayals of sensitive youths in their 13th year. Actor Jonah Hill makes his directorial debut with “Mid90s,” a deceptively rough love letter to male friendship. Like the boys themselves, this movie only looks tough on the outside; it conceals a great deal of heart beneath a great deal of cursing.
An undersized young man named Sunny Suljic stars as Stevie, who I can only presume is a stand-in for a young Jonah Hill. I saw this because they even look alike, but mostly because this film is full of the kind of details that simply must be true. I feel certain that 13-year-old Jonah Hill sneaked into his older brother’s room and carefully wrote down the names of all his CDs. Suljic is raw and beautiful as a little boy exploring adulthood, and he has a certain flair that makes him more interesting than just a quiet nerd. When he earns some popularity, you can see why.
Growing increasingly isolated from that older brother Ian (Lucas Hedges) and their single mom, Dabney (Katherine Waterston), Stevie walks into a skateboard shop one afternoon and feels his life snap into place. He immediately idolizes the various young men hanging around inside and, through a fellow closer to his age, Ruben, gets his foot in the door of their world.
Their camaraderie gives Stevie a boost of self confidence, and in some ways he flourishes under their influence. Skating gives him an outlet and the friendship he desperately craves. Ray, the leader, is a charismatic and intelligent guy, smarter and more sensitive than his pals. He is the only one who protests, all too briefly, when their youngest friends start drinking and taking drugs. The weakness of his protests is another of the films’ extremely believable touches.
As Stevie spends more time with his friends, he continues to negotiate that boundary between freedom and danger, and even his fairly ineffectual mother gets clued in that he is going too far. His older brother, who seems like just a muscly jerk, very slowly reveals himself as more, and their relationship is quietly profound. It is more subtly written than any other relationship in the film, but a rewarding one to watch.
Ray is also the best skater of the group, and throughout the film he grows more disenchanted with his best friend, who is wild and getting wilder, and goes by an unpublishable nickname. Things come to a head when Ray tries to host a skating event behind the shop in an effort to woo some sponsors for himself, and the situation deteriorates due to alcohol.
Just when you think this little movie is only going to be about skating and cursing, which is actually fine with me, Jonah Hill manages to raise the stakes, but does so in a natural and believable progression. Just watching Stevie’s little face would be almost enough to make a movie for my taste, but there ends up being just enough action, and the film really clinches the ending. It’s a perfectly punctuated moment in a nicely rambling misadventure. “Mid90s” finds the kind of balance its characters seek, growing up, but just a little.
“Mid90s” is currently available to rent.