Sunshine, skating and friendship are the essential elements of Jonah Hill’s supremely confident directorial debut, Mid90s. Set in Los Angeles more than 20 years ago, the striking coming-of-age drama stars Sunny Suljic as Stevie, a boy in his early teens who is drawn into the camaraderie and lifestyle of a group of young skaters who offer him a sense of belonging. With a skateboard and a new nickname, Sunburn, Stevie is introduced to a world far removed from his often turbulent home life.
Coming-of-age films are one of the most enduring sub-genres in cinema, taking us back to a certain time and place in our lives through the story as it’s told on screen. With echoes of Oscar winner Boyhood and British classic This Is England (Hill is a self-avowed fan of Shane Meadows), Mid90s looks inside the mind of a teenager as he fights to find a place in the world. As Stevie clashes with most adults, as well as his older brother (Oscar nominee Lucas Hedges), the film explores the youthful need for belonging, finding your tribe and discovering who you are. What Stevie and his friends learn on the skate ramps is that it doesn’t matter if you fall, as long as you get back up again.
Woven into the story is an impeccable score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, whose legacies were forged in the ’90s music scene, and Hill blends this warm soundtrack with achingly cool hits from Pixies, Morrissey and Cypress Hill. This all comes together to summon a sense of time and place with a freshness that makes this nostalgia feel brand new.
The film heralds the arrival of Hill as an exciting new director, and his work has also been favourably compared to that of his past collaborator Martin Scorsese. Having enjoyed more than a decade of success in a variety of genres as an actor, Hill succeeds in the often tricky transition to directing by keeping things honest. It’s a labour of love for the Wolf Of Wall Street star, who wrote the script and drew inspiration from his own childhood. Hill himself grew up in LA in this period and had many of the same interests as Stevie. This personal connection infuses Mid90s with an authenticity that’s hard to ignore, and draws an investment in Stevie’s journey.
Running parallel to the new talent behind the camera is one in front of it: Sunny Suljic. Despite only being 13, the actor has established an impressive CV already, appearing in The Killing Of A Sacred Deer and blockbuster video game God Of War. Here he plays Stevie as a young boy jumping head-first into adulthood, often putting life and limb at risk to impress his new friends. It’s an endlessly empathetic performance, bolstered by the always impressive Hedges (Lady Bird, Manchester By The Sea), and Katherine Waterston (Fantastic Beasts) as Stevie’s hard-working single mother. It’s also hard not to be won over by Stevie’s new friends – a group of first-time actors who mix bullish charisma with endearing naïveté.
It will bring back memories for those over a certain age, but Mid90s is not nostalgia for nostalgia’s sake. Instead, Hill creates a testament to a unique time in American culture, and a personal story that will resonate with anyone who has navigated the highs and lows of adolescence.
Mid90s is out 12 April.