If Mid90s were not the work of someone who is already famous, it would be of limited interest on its own terms, and those terms are 85 minutes of people being ugly and miserable to one another in a richly detailed atmosphere suggesting autobiography. Dozens of such films are released into the film-festival ecosystem each year, and most never emerge from its wilds.
A small minority of such works, though, while ignored by audiences, nevertheless contain a spark of promise. They become calling cards, certificates of entry to the clubhouse of major moviemaking. Written and directed by Jonah Hill in his debut as an auteur, Mid90s displays plenty of filmmaking swagger and makes a strong case for Hill to be admitted to that club, the one where there are polished scripts telling actual stories, not just exploring a situation. I’m not sure Hill does anything especially original or interesting here, and the influence of his mentor Martin Scorsese is all over Mid90s, but though Scorsese is perhaps the single most imitated of all filmmakers right now, Hill does map out a personal space with so much verve that I suspect his next film might be a very good one.
Somewhere between Scorsese’s Mean Streets and Larry Clark’s Kids, Mid90s, which just debuted at the New York Film Festival ahead of an October 19 theatrical release, takes place in a low-rent part of Los Angeles where Stevie (an affecting Sunny Suljic), a prepubescent boy of about twelve, is growing up with an abusive, much older brother (Lucas Hedges) and a kindly but spacey mom (Katherine Waterston). Seeking escape from his miserable home life, which consists largely of being walloped by his brother while a succession of anonymous men flits through his mother’s bedroom (no father is ever seen or mentioned), Stevie begins hanging around with a group of older boys at a skateboard shop.
Acceptance comes slowly. Stevie knows he has arrived when the leader of the group, Ray (Na-Kel Smith), allows the little kid to refill his water jug, then bestows upon him the nickname “Sunburn.” As nicknames go, this is better than F***s*** (Olan Prenatt), so named for an awed reaction he often gives to skateboard moves, and Fourth Grade (Ryder McLaughlin), who supposedly speaks at that level although he is actually a budding filmmaker. All of these kids seem to be in their late teens, but closer to Stevie’s age is Ruben (Gio Galicia), who teaches our hero not to say thank you because it’s “gay.”
Stevie learns much more from his new crew: how to smoke (both tobacco and pot), how to skate nonchalantly down the middle of a busy street, how to evade capture by “five-oh,” how to forget a girl you’ve hooked up with, how to sustain severe injuries. The intended message of the film — it’s good to have friends who will come visit you in the hospital — differs from the one I took away: It’s not so good to have friends whose gross irresponsibility put you in the hospital in the first place.
As did Clark in Kids, a 1995 portrait of teens living in grotesque, joyless decadence, Hill takes a resolutely nonjudgmental stance toward various kinds of bad behavior. Mid90s eschews the larkish qualities of a 1980s teen sex comedy or the fondness of Richard Linklater films such as Boyhood or Dazed and Confused. Such films are actually harder to pull off than a wallow in pain, which is mostly what Mid90s is. Its best moments come when Hill takes himself least seriously, such as a scene in which the kids and a security guard separated by a fence insult each other, with the n-word flying in both directions.
But though the film has some dramatic intensity, especially a visceral take on a mishap involving a car, and several very Scorsese-ish interludes in which the dialogue is turned down while the musical score takes over, it lacks the self-confronting honesty of a finely considered bildungsroman or such cinematic equivalents as François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows. Hill portrays Stevie as a victim whose actions are licensed by his brother’s abuse. The point is made, far too emphatically, with the opening sound effect of the movie, which strikes the ear much like a 700-pound load of bricks falling on a wooden floor but is merely Stevie being shoved into a wall by his older brother. He who has never been shoved by an older brother is he who has never had an older brother, but Hill is demanding we pity Stevie, to think that he has suffered so much at his actual home that he’ll do anything to find a metaphorical one, with an alternative family.
A more honest treatment would have regarded Stevie’s claims with skepticism. A key scene has his mom infuriating him by telling the other kids not to give him drugs and alcohol — but though the film revels in his anguish, she is absolutely right. He’d be far better off without this supposed family, whose actions nearly get him killed twice. Ray tells him, admiringly, “You literally take the hardest hits of anybody I ever seen in my life.” Mid90s thinks it’s about resilience. Actually it’s about stupidity.