In case the title left you uncertain, the coming-of-age drama Mid90s announces its setting in a Proustian frenzy of period references. If you blink and miss Ren and Stimpy, don’t worry — the Sony Discman will be along shortly. A Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles duvet is glimpsed too, but the implied childish innocence does not last long, its owner — Los Angeles 13-year-old Stevie (Sunny Suljic) — briefly but horribly pummelled by his older brother Ian (Lucas Hedges). This much, we gather, is routine.
The ’90s-stalgia is constant — yes, that is a beeper store, managed by a veteran of Operation Desert Storm — even as the film grows into a fine-grained snapshot of adolescence. The director is the comic actor Jonah Hill, making a poised debut behind the camera. Of course, tradition dictates that a first film draw on life experience, and while Hill has been clear that the domestic violence he portrays is fictional, the milieu he knows first-hand. In his teens in 1990s LA, he haunted the local skateboard scene. Now, Stevie finds respite from trouble at home with a set of older skaters, escaping into a world of ludicrously risky tricks and underage hedonism, where the worst crime possible is to be “corny”.
Hill captures the eternally strange cultural place of skateboarding — marginal even while inspiring high-gloss ad campaigns, practised in derelict urban spaces. Neatly observed too are the group dynamics of Stevie’s friends and the rage that courses between him and Ian, from whom Hedges mines surprising nuance. Amid the name-dropping, the biggest influence goes uncredited — Kids, the vérité account of New York skate life that launched the career of its ramshackle writer Harmony Korine. But Hill does the next best thing, inviting Korine for a winking cameo. In truth, compared with Kids, Mid90s can seem corny itself. But then, Hill is a child of Hollywood, so perhaps we should expect a little furtive wholesomeness.
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