"Mid90s," about a young skateboarding teenager falling in with a group of older boys, is an accomplished debut feature from actor turned writer-director Jonah Hill. It's affecting, loose, sharply observed, emotional but not sentimental. It's also faithful to the period but not aggressively nostalgic, recreating the era in order to walk around in it and look at it, rather than merely marveling at how long ago it now seems, and how innocent "we" supposedly were. Some of the best scenes in the movie put the characters into a specific situation and watch them behave, without keeping one eye on the clock at every second and constantly fretting about whether exposition has been delivered with sufficient panache and that the plot has been moved along to everyone's satisfaction. It creates life and watches it unfold.
Before shooting started, Hill supposedly showed his collaborators a few key works that he wanted them to keep in mind. One of them was Larry Clark's notorious 1995 New York teens-in-trouble drama "Kids." The result has that sort of pre-millennium indie movie vibe. All that being said, the atmospheric details are strong enough that viewers of a certain age might find themselves traveling falling into emotional rabbit hole anyway, even if their own experience of the era was nothing like the one depicted onscreen. Maybe the highest compliment that can be paid to this kind of movie is to say that it feels like it's of the era, not just about it or set during it.
My favorite scene in the movie is a longish visit to a local park where 13-year-old Stevie (Sunny Suljic) and his friends skate, smoke pot and talk to each other. One of the boys, a budding filmmaker known as Fourth Grade (Ryder McLaughlin) because he's considered a dimwit, films two of the other teens as they talk to a currently unemployed non-skater who tells them that he used to work in data entry. They all shoot the breeze for a bit. Hill keeps their conversation on the soundtrack as the movie cuts to images of people elsewhere in the park, all enjoying the day in their own way. You get a sense of the park as an extension of the scene, and the scene as a microcosm of life itself. If you let your mind roam (as I think the movie wants it to) you might feel momentarily warm about the prospects of the human species.
The entire scene—including the fact that somebody else is onscreen recording it—has the feeling of a caught slice-of-life moment from a documentary, something that was witnessed and recorded rather than written and performed. If this and other moments like it (including scenes of the teens busting each other's chops and trying to one-up each other with outrageous, often racist and homophobic banter) make it feel as if Hill created "Mid90s" so that he could go back in time and really pay attention during moments that meant a lot to him in retrospect. It's part of a continuum of films about limited young men hanging out while aimlessly entertaining each other and themselves, trying to get their minds off troubles at home and fear of the future by getting drunk and high and trying to score with girls and occasionally risking their lives heroically or more often stupidly. You could draw a direct line from Federico Fellini's "I Vitelloni" through Martin Scorsese's "Mean Streets," Michael Schulz's "Cooley High" and Richard Linklater's "Dazed and Confused" and "Everybody Wants Some!"
Scorsese is pretty clearly the biggest influence, though it's the early Scorsese of "Who's That Knocking At My Door?" and "Mean Streets" more so than "Goodfellas," a movie that Stevie, his thuggish older brother Ian (Lucas Hedges), and his single mom Danny (Katherine Waterston) are seen watching on their living room TV on Blockbuster Night (ask your parents what that was, kids). The young men try to impress each other and establish a pecking order through jocular sarcasm and insults. They insist on their heterosexuality by trying to act as hard as possible. Dares and machismo lead to bad outcomes, as in the film's harrowing accidents. Truthful-seeming observations about how young men and women relate to each other at parties and on the street have that affectionate yet anthropologically exact sensibility that Scorsese brought to his early movies, minus the ultra-violence. The only prolonged fight in the film is between a couple of middle schoolers, and the most intense confrontation doesn't get any more physical than Olan Prenatt's frizzy-haired wiseass Fuckshit flicking Ian's nose, to taunt him into a fight he isn't brave or stupid enough to engage.
The movie manages to feel loose and tight at the same time, the correct aesthetic for a fairly brief (88 minute) work that's more about stitching together a bunch of caught-seeming moments than attempting any kind of sweeping, coherent statement. The only thing I can really say against "Mid90s" that it's so elliptical that it feels underwritten. It's never clear why the older kids put up with Stevie, who's so young (and small even for a younger kid) that he's practically a mascot, and who doesn't skate well enough to justify himself as anything else. And whenever the movie presents elements of deep darkness—such as Stevie's tendency to harm himself, which hints at past traumas that the movie itself isn't prepared to address, and Stevie's first sexual encounter, which age-wise would be classified as statutory rape—it glosses over them, in such a way that you can't be sure if it's trying to be subtle and failing, or reflexively adding a bit of extra grit because that's what we expect from this kind of movie. I wanted more context for Stevie's behavior, not because we can't imagine it, but because we almost can. At lot of important pieces (such as Dabney casually commenting on Ian's birthday that when she was his age, she was breastfeeding him) are already present, and they could've been shaped with more care. It's hard to tell if this aspect of the film was never properly written in the first place, or written or shot and then cut.
Either way, the film's lightness and looseness is a source of strength as well as weakness. It's easy to imagine it turning literal minded or preachy if it went too far in the direction of psychologizing and explanations. It's always clear thats Stevie is simply too young to be involved in a lot of the things he's involved in, and to its credit, the movie seems inclined to view the arc of his experience with the skater kids non-judgmentally—as a bunch of things that happened, many of them regrettable if you're looking at Stevie's life through the eyes of his mother, but all memorable, in both good and bad ways, if you're Stevie. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross' synth score and Christopher Blauvelt's blocky 4x3 cinematography are the only overtly lyrical aspects, and they both feel earned and intelligent. This is the kind of inward-looking movie that a talented thirty-something director makes when he realizes he's not a kid anymore, then wonders if he ever was.