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Mid90s review - an affecting and humane indie skater drama


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A little way into Mid90s, Jonah Hill's affecting and humane directorial debut, its protagonist Stevie comes home to his family watching Goodfellas on VHS. Whilst it may not seem like the most complementary film, Martin Scorsese's mob masterwork has more in common with Hill's indie skater film that one would think. The two films examine families - the ones we're born into, the ones we make, and the conflict between the two.

Image via Altitude Film Sales

Simultaneously a hangout movie and a coming-of-age drama, Mid90s regards the 13-year-old Stevie - or "Sunburn" as he comes to be nicknamed - as he lives through a tumultuous summer in 1990s Los Angeles. As the sun blazes, his puberty and estrangement see him lurch from his own fractured family into the care of a gang of young skaters. With this disparate crew, he - and the audience - come to experience the full range of emotions as he encounters a number of firsts - first drink, first drug, first sexual experience, first accident. Stevie skates between his two families, best represented in the idyllic sunset-ridden long-shot as he and the crew board down the middle of a highway, between cars and between lives.

Jonah Hill both writes and directs for the first time, with a debut so astonishingly assured that you'd think it was from someone with far more directorial experience - but of course, Hill is experienced. He's been in the industry for 15 years, and during that time, he's spanned a myriad of genres and filmmakers. In Superbad and the Jump Street films, he demonstrated his own raucously funny, sweary approach to comedy, and in films like Moneyball and Hail, Caesar he demonstrated a more nuanced, dramatic sensibility. Across the years, he's worked with the Coen brothers, the aforementioned Scorsese, Gus van Sant, Harmony Korine, Quentin Tarantino, and more. It's a broad range, much like Hill's acting abilities, and the influences of these experiences are evident in this first film.

The film is shot in the ratio 4:3, an appropriately indie stylistic choice reminiscent of the video-cameras of the decade in which it's nominally set. This gives it a home-made, realistic feel - indeed, one of the skaters is a hopeful filmmaker, documenting the events throughout with his own camcorder. Hill excels in the economy of form, crafting the realism that permeates the film through his minimalistic, often beautiful framing and his naturalistic performances.

It's not surprising that the performances are so authentic - the crew of skaters are all exactly that in real life. Yet, despite the theatrical inexperience they play characters who deftly balance moments of euphoria and friendships - and moments of underlying sadness, ambition, and disillusionment. Na'kel Smith's scene of quiet revelation marks a turning point in the film, while Olan Prenatt does well as someone so bent on having a good time that they must be trying to conceal something. The crass, rambling conversations between the group are reminiscent of the improvisational stoner debates littered throughout the early Judd Apatow joints that Hill would star in, only now there's an underlying pathos that later unfolds.

As for Stevie's biological family, they're rounded out by more established actors. Katherine Waterston is his mother, mannered and emotional, her heartbreak at no-longer understanding her own son spelt out visually rather than verbally. Indie-favourite Lucas Hedges is his brother, against-type as a brutish bully displaying the toughest of tough-loves to his younger sibling. Outwardly vicious and inwardly insecure, he's responsible for some of the more uncomfortable moments of drama in the film. Hill's eye for realism may be so endearing when it's the teenagers having fun, but it makes the moments of harrowing violence or tragic accident utterly uncomfortable too through such a candid approach. This is a good thing though, and Hill impressively balances the drama and the relief so effectively - and affectingly.

However, there is an invaluable quality to the film that hasn't been mentioned - the soundtrack. Without it, the film wouldn't achieve quite the energy, quite the emotion, nor quite the absolute enjoyment without its rhythmic, entrancing jukebox. While the only autobiographical aspect of the film seems to be the fact that Hill grew up skating and working in a skate-shop, there is a sense of history and enthusiasm in the tracks that Hill curates for the film.

The turn-tables are largely comprised of 90s hip-hop, with occasional splashes of rock or punk - and a few specially made piano-heavy tracks by the terrific pairing of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross.  A Tribe Called Quest, Morrissey, Cypress Hill and even the thundering, organ-like roar of Norwegian rock band Omega (very probably found by Hill hearing them sampled on his friend Kanye's Yeezus) are all used with such precision and creativity that I would argue that it's genuinely comparable to Scorsese's high-water mark of editing visuals and music in, yes, the very explicitly invoked Goodfellas.

With Mid90s, Jonah Hill has produced the most hilarious, heartwarming, and harrowing of coming-of-age film debuts. Lifelike and relatable, Hill conveys the struggles of puberty with such warmth and energy to create a modern classic of slacker, skater films.

Mid90s is out now in cinemas.

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