A skateboard is a fascinating object. On the one hand, it’s an expensive, finely crafted tool, and there’s a real sense of intimacy between a seasoned skater and their board. At the same time, a skateboard has to take a fair amount of punishment on a daily basis, as does its rider. Shred a board too much and it becomes nothing more than a splintered piece of wood. But what are you supposed to do—ride a skateboard gently?
This paradox is at the center of Jonah Hill’s directorial debut, “Mid90s,” a lean and efficient sendup of skate culture. Those bored of eighties nostalgia may feel refreshed by this lurch into another decade, and the cast of Hill’s film could easily go toe-to-toe with the “Stranger Things” kids in terms of sheer likeability. But the skaters at the heart of “Mid90s” come with more of an edge, starting with 13-year-old Stevie (Sunny Suljic), our POV character. Stevie is tormented on a daily basis by his abusive older brother and turns to skating for acceptance. He starts to befriend a few older skaters—Rubin, “Fourth Grade,” “Fuckshit” and Ray, the oldest and coolest guy.
If any of these beats sound familiar, that’s because “Mid90s” checks a lot of the boxes one has come to expect from a flick from production company A24. Set against the backdrop of an impoverished L.A., this is another film about a lonely protagonist working their way into and around a tough environment, a very personal story that shines a spotlight on a generally underrepresented group or subculture. For more, see “LadyBird,” “The Florida Project,” “Eighth Grade” or “Moonlight.”
Look, there’s no inherent issue with the A24 formula—I love all of those movies. But because “Mid90s” is so minimal (with a runtime of about 80 minutes), it’s hard not to notice the ways that it remixes elements of prior A24 outings. Case in point: “Mid90s” is shot with a 4:3 aspect ratio, and the last movie I saw in theaters with the same square framing was in “First Reformed,” another top-tier A24 release.
Unfortunately, the cinematography of “Mid90s” isn’t quite as creative as what’s going on in “Reformed,” though Jonah Hill proves himself a capable director. The square frame is more an extension of Hill’s minimalism, though the quality in the work comes less from delivering unforgettable shots and more from an unbreakable yet tasteful period authenticity. From “Street Fighter” t-shirts to specific aspects of the skater aesthetic, Hill does as good a job representing the skater experience as, say, Bo Burnham did placing viewers in the perspective of an eighth-grade girl. Hill has already proved himself a serious talent with his two Oscar nominations, but his only prior directing credit is a bloody fun Danny Brown music video (which is great and also shot in 4:3). Let’s just say I far preferred “Mid90s” to the last thing I saw from an actor-turned-“auteur” (cough cough “A Star is Born”).
Then “Mid90s” screeches to a halt. Hill’s commitment to “less is more” means that the sight of the end credits was a bit jarring. While the conclusion does cut a few corners, I worry that adding any more to the movie would have felt trite and half-baked. Like with this summer’s “Sorry to Bother You,” I didn’t go bananas for the film, but it’s a confident debut, and I’m excited to see where Hill goes from here.
The enduring images Hill finds in his brief trip down memory lane center on abuse, a touchy subject matter that’s handled delicately here. Sunny Suljic’s performance as Stevie is pretty spot-on (his second solid turn this year after playing Atreus in the video game “God of War”), and A24 staple Lucas Hedges also does good work as Stevie’s older brother, Ian. You can’t help but wince when Stevie gets hurt, and the main arc of “Mid90s” subtly traces the psychological impact of Stevie’s abuse. And while he never stops loving his brother, perhaps Stevie’s connection to a hobby so mired in paradoxes should come as no surprise. Good job, Jonah Hill.