In the last decade, it's been impressive to watch Jonah Hill prove just how talented he is. We all got to know him as a funny, chubby kid, part of the Judd Apatow comedy crew, but everything has been different since he earned his first Academy Award nomination for his supporting turn in Moneyball. Since then he has repeatedly proven that he is worth taking seriously, including earning a second Oscar nomination for his Wolf Of Wall Street performance, and now his career has progressed to a natural point: his impressive directorial debut.
For his first time behind the lens, both writing and directing, Jonah Hill chose a period coming-of-age story -- and it's excusable if you think from the outside it looks a bit pretentious. After all, Mid90s is a film that looks like it has been painted with the "indie movie" paintbrush, featuring a loose narrative and a cast full of unknowns. The truth, however, is that it's much more than that. With Hill's sharp sense of humor being the secret weapon, the feature is a fun, engaging bit of slice-of-life storytelling primarily motivated by fantastic characters driven by wonderful performances.
Based on an original screenplay by Jonah Hill, Mid90s takes us back to the end of the 20th century in Southern California, where young Stevie (Sunny Suljic) is trying to find his place in the world. The son of a working single mother (Katherine Waterston), brother to an abusive, workout-obsessed jerk (Lucas Hedges), and short for his age, he doesn't really fit in anywhere -- until he discovers the older kids hanging out at the local skate shop.
Stevie quickly becomes fascinated with the immensely talented Ray (Na-kel Smith), the hard-partying Fuckshit (Olan Prenatt), the slow Fourth Grade (Ryder McLaughlin), and the wannabe Ruben (Gio Galicia), deciding to pick up skateboarding as a hobby/habit so that he can fit in. They're not exactly the greatest role models, teaching the diminutive, polite young teen to drink, smoke and generally act rebellious, but in doing so they help him start to discover both who he is and who he wants to be in life.
Mid90s simple setup isn't exactly the most mind-blowingly creative and original idea we've seen, but its power is in its execution and surprising tone. Nothing ever feels heightened, or overly dramatized, and it's able to hit its more serious notes while also always feeing strangely charming. Given Hill's background it shouldn't be overly surprising just how funny the movie is, but it still can take you aback with some legitimately laugh-out-loud moments -- presented through the wonderful chemistry that exists among the principals, and with some fantastic physical comedy work.
In the case of the former, the back and forth between all of the friends is wonderfully breezy and true-to-life while also subtlety layering in conflicts that pay off in a great way in the back-half of the film. In the case of the latter, one of Stevie's primary traits is his ability to take a huge hit and always bounce back, and it not only lends to some surprising chuckles, but also solidifies a picture of who the protagonist is and makes him that much more compelling.
Jonah Hill puts a lot of weight on the shoulders of the Sunny Suljic, but it's an honest demonstration of the effectiveness of great casting, as the young star effectively carries the entire movie. Playing a young "punk" can be a balancing act, as a protagonist's overtly disrespectful and obnoxious behavior can easily turn off an audience, but the innocence of Suljic carries a lot of weight, and there's never a moment where you're not rooting for his happiness. It certainly helps that Hill surrounds the actor with an equally charismatic ensemble that you legitimately enjoying hanging out with while they skate, tease security guards, and have lazy conversations about pets and sunburn.
What's ultimately the most exciting thing about Mid90s is simply all of the potential that it puts forward. Not only is there a wonderful young group of actors here who can use this movie as a launching pad, but Jonah Hill showcases himself as a filmmaker with a vision and stories to tell. It feels intimate and personal, but is also easily accessible with personality and an inviting, natural tone. It's a wonderful, occasionally rough-around-the-edges auspicious debut that immediately excites the audience for what the writer/director will deliver next.