Since my childhood was spent during the 80s and 90s, it was obvious I would pay close attention to a film called mid90s. Its trailer instantly spoke to me – skateboard kids wearing baggy clothing and listening to genre-defining hip-hop, punk and alternative music with no cares in the world. It looked a lot like Larry Clark’s Kids, the controversial indie that made the “shocking” revelation that kids aren’t as innocent as we’d like them to be. Whereas Kids was more a cautionary tale that served as a warning for what’s to come, mid90s is a nostalgic slice-of-life tale with heart. This comedy-drama isn’t all ice cream and rainbows, though. It's a coming of age tale that's nearly as serious as it is authentic.

Academy Award-nominated actor Jonah Hill wrote and directed, and he focuses on Stevie (Sunny Suljic), a lonely 13-year old with a less-than-ideal home life. He lives with his single mother Dabney (Katherine Waterston) and his bully of an older brother Ian (Academy Award nominee Lucas Hedges). Stevie becomes friends with a group of skaters and in his quest for acceptance Stevie undergoes some changes. Once quiet and shy, Sunburn, as he’s known to his new friends, turns into a smoking, drinking and hostile teenage skater. This only makes his home life more difficult – Stevie hates his mom for being promiscuous, absent and (in his eyes) overbearing; and he despises Ian for bullying him. Stevie finds joy in hanging out with Ray (Na-kel Smith), Fuckshit (Olan Prenatt), Ruben (Gio Galicia) and Fourth Grade (Ryder McLaughlin) since they represent freedom and an escape from his problems at home. In time, though, Stevie comes to realize he’s not the only one hurting – his friends and everyone he encounters are struggling, too.

Mid90s is raw (but not as raw as Kids), but it is clearly a passion project coming straight from the heart of its director. It looked like Hill inserted some of his childhood experiences, which made for an intimate story, but at the same time he kept enough distance in order to avoid leaning too much in any one direction. That balance parlays itself into an authentic story that doesn’t use pop culture as a gimmick. It’s like coming across an old video and while watching it you think back to those moments as they appear. Hill is able to tap into that, and he’s slick enough to buoy that by providing a soundtrack that is sure to make heads bump from beginning to end.

What’s more impressive is that Hill directed mostly children, a feat in itself. Directing kids has always been difficult, so Hill should be commended for not only coaxing competent performances from his young cast, he was able to generate memorable ones. Sunny Suljic is the most obvious strong performance – his metamorphosis was both plausible and convincing. He juggled a myriad of emotions – happiness, sadness and anger and it made mid90s all the more authentic. The rest of the cast is strong, too - as I mentioned this felt like watching a hidden-in-the-basement home video, so it didn’t feel like anyone was acting because they (like Hill when he wrote it) were drawing from their own experiences.

Besides the authenticity and nostalgia, Hill taps into relevant themes, the biggest one being the importance of friendships. Stevie becomes a more aggressive and combative person due to his friends, but their truculence belies their importance to Stevie. Stevie shares their love for skating, their curiosity about girls and their preference to party than worry about school. But they choose those things because they want to avoid the perils of their personal lives. And when things get unbearably tough, Stevie and his friends can rely on each other to get through, even when they’re fighting amongst each other. No one can escape the rigors of life, but it can be tolerated when one knows they’re not alone. Hill knows this, and he conveyed that shockingly and delicately.

Hill's directorial debut is rough around the edges, but that’s a necessary component in regards to its authenticity. Hill, who’s found success as an actor, now finds himself in the enviable position of blossoming into a successful filmmaker. If he continues to tell stories with the same passion he displayed here he’ll have a solid career to fall back on when he decides to quit acting. In the meantime, audiences can reminisce, smile, gasp and feel for this exceptionally-told yesteryear story.

4 stars out of 5


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