Imagine Lady Bird had been shot in the documentarian vogue of Larry Clark’s Kids and was even less concerned with actual plotting. That’s mid90s, loosely speaking, the directorial debut of Wolf of Wall Street star Jonah Hill. With its genuinely joyful era specific soundtrack, Super 16 grain, Academy ratio and abundance of contemporary props, this is gentle nostalgia and transience in one. Very little happens but it does so with a winning ear for naturalism.
Having impressed in Yorgos Lanthimos’ Killing of a Sacred Deer, Sunny Suljic shines again here as Stevie, the thirteen year-old son of Dabney (Katherine Waterston) and younger brother of Ian (Lucas Hedges). They’re a dysfunctional LA based trio, each missing an appropriate confident and all balancing on the boundaries of contentedness and despair. Whilst Dabney overshares the intimacies of her life to the boys – ‘Jesus, at my eighteenth birthday party I was breastfeeding you’ – Ian obsessively strives for physical perfection and Stevie battles the stresses of dawning puberty, finding solace only in music. Only in music, that is, until his eye chances upon the camaraderie of a local skateboarding gang. Naturally, being young and impressionable, he wants in.
Beyond Kids, Hill has cited This Is England, Ratcatcher, and The Sandlot as influences on his vision for mid90s but he taps too into the social myth-busting tradition of Karel Reisz’s We Are the Lambeth Boys. Stevie’s infiltration of the gang sees him accepted into a pseudo family whose cool exteriors belies internal fracturing. Perfectly measured, Hill’s script breathes easy with gasps of real life. Note perfect dialogue bandies a realist banter between the skater boys, who quickly ingratiate Stevie with the nickname Sunburn and introductions to alcohol, drugs and his own sexual awakening. In one quietly electric sequence the boys simply debate whether it would be preferable to perform oral penetration on one’s mother or father at point of death. Even the crueler cusses carry a feeling for disparaging realism.
Chief among Stevie’s new friendship group is cool, aspirational Ray (Na-Kel Smith), who hides a deep internal struggle with past tragedy behind an air of nonchalance. There’s also poor, dim ‘Fourth Grade’ (Ryder McLaughlin), substance abusing Fuckshit (Olan Prenatt) and brittle, unpredictable Reuben (Gia Galicia): ‘I smoke, I skate, I f*** bitches’. Thanks not least to well judged performances from Hill’s young talent, each character feels truthful in realisation and naturalistic in translation. Waterston too glows, as the elder statesman of the cast, in a showcase that suggests she has more to offer than either J. K. Rowling or Ridley Scott have quiet unearthed. There’s more to her story, you just know it.
Behind the camera, Hill demonstrates promise akin to that of Greta Gerwig in his osmosis to directorial duties. Whilst this is a decidedly underplayed inauguration, the work that has gone into the film’s realisation is disguised by deceptive simplicity. The film’s highlight may well be the repeated long shot of the boys skating towards Hill’s lens down the centre of a busy road but more complex effects in darker scenes prove to be just as arresting. Hill pitches his climax with impeccable subtlety, building to a thoroughly well earned final note. In lesser hands, such twists as are to be found here might easily have felt contrived. Instead, Hill makes his point with precious little fuss and just about nails it.
Where Hill might go next remains to be seen. Perhaps a series following young Stevie through to the late90s and early00s? Something a la Truffaut? Linklater is more likely. No matter, in the here and now, mid90s marks a good start. A little under ninety minutes in length, the film floats by on the still sea of tranquility, with calm waters hiding great depths below. Over all, a soundtrack boasting Nirvana, The Notorious B. I. G. and Eminem can do little wrong.