Jonah Hill’s directorial debut is strong on atmosphere, but short on story

Film | by Jorge Ignacio Castillo

Opens Friday 26
2.5 out of 5

“Write what you know” is a cliché Jonah Hill has taken to heart in his debut as writer-director. Mid90s revolves around a 13-year-old trying to carve his place in the world who finds shelter at a skate shop with a group of older kids.

The boy in question, Stevie (Sunny Suljic, The Killing of the Sacred Deer), comes from a home on the verge of collapse. His brother (Lucas Hedges) is an abusive bully and his mom (Katherine Waterston) can barely manage her own life, let alone discipline her children. When the kid finds an escape in the form of a skateboard, he doesn’t let go.

Mid90s excels at depicting male teen friendship, a bit aggressive, a bit coarse, and very physical. Even though the budding filmmaker, at times, overplays his hand with pop culture signifiers from the ’90s, his ability to recreate a milieu from 20 years ago is remarkable. The 16mm look and unpolished performances give the film a documentary feel. Unfortunately for Hill, Skate Kitchen tackled the same subject a few months ago and did it better.

That’s not even Mid90s main problem. While the film’s mise-en-scene is a joy and succeeds at establishing fully fleshed out characters, it doesn’t know what to do with them. Mid90s meanders for about three-quarters of its length, only to ramp up the conflict at the end, leading to an unearned emotional conclusion.

The limited stakes are realistic, but make the whole venture feel slight. The most interesting element, Stevie’s hate/admiration for his older brother, could have used further exploration, as opposed to the umpteenth conversation about skating.