Bradley Cooper just aced his actor-to-director transition with the currently mega-popular “A Star Is Born.”
“Mid90s” director Jonah Hill needed two extra transitions. Hill was a roly-poly, angry-but-funny Judd Apatow regular: He had to 1) transition to being a serious dramatic actor first, which he managed with his role in Brad Pitt’s “Money Ball.” Then 2) (which goes hand-in-hand with 1, to ensure career longevity) he had to lose a lot of weight.
Hill’s since taken much good-natured flak from the rest of the Apatow clan (Seth Rogen, Jason Segel, James Franco, Paul Rudd, and so on) for his ambition. He doesn’t mind. He’s attained all his childhood dreams.
And so now—a third star is born. In a matter of weeks, Hill, like Cooper, has also aced his directorial debut. And he’s given a bunch of newbie actors a serious leg up in the Biz, if they wish to continue in that direction.
Feckless Mid-90s Youth
“Mid90s” is like “Dazed and Confused” (1993) crossed with “Kids” (1995), “Freaks and Geeks” (1999), “Dogtown and Z-Boys” (2001), and “Slackers” (2002), with a sprinkling of this year’s “Eighth Grade.”
Like the solitary female lead character in “Eighth Grade,” “Mid90s” tells the story of runty 13-year-old Stevie (Sunny Suljic) trying to fit in and learn how to be cool.
His choices of role models are in a ratty group of local sk8ter bois. Stevie’s single mom (Katherine Waterston) struggles to keep it together, while his older brother Ian (Lucas Hedges) is seriously abusive.
Speaking of which, Hill opens the movie with a scene of such intense, realistic, brother-on-brother beat-down abuse, you wonder how the actors sustained it without actual injury.
It serves, however, to demo little Stevie’s prodigious ability to forbear. Shortly post-beating, he’s in his big brother’s room (Verboten!), doing what little brothers do: examining and snooping big bro’s tape collection, posters, and teenage knickknacks in an attempt to discover his own identity.
Unlike his brother, however, Stevie’s a people person, and he starts hanging around aforementioned local, lanky, latchkey, loudmouthed loser crew of little skater dudes. They’re only losers by way of poverty and nonsupervision; otherwise, they’re the cool kids. And Stevie takes the first step out of his brother’s sphere of influence. Via the skater crew, he’s no longer, like his brother, lonely.
The first to invite Stevie into the gang is Ruben (Gio Galicia), who instructs Stevie not to apologize for anything, under threat of being called derogatory homosexual names (a recurring theme), and also to go fill up the communal water bottle. (These kids skate all day in the hot L.A. sun; gotta hydrate.)
“Mid90s” resembles Richard Linklater’s “Dazed and Confused” in that Stevie, like the character Mitch Kramer of “Dazed” is taken in by an older group of cool senior boys for showing toughness. The big boys dare Mitch to throw a bowling ball through the back of a car window; Stevie attempts an insane skateboard trick, falls through a roof, splats on a picnic table, but grins that he’s OK while blood runs down his forehead, thereby establishing his alpha potential and moving him up in the pecking order. Both boys get labeled crazy—a universal boy compliment.
Hill, like Linklater, has an ear for a good soundtrack, sprinkling gems of the mid-1990s throughout “Mid90s,” but most impressive is his choice of mid-’70s fusion-jazz groove “Watermelon Man,” an A-side cut off Herbie Hancock’s mega-popular album “Head Hunters.” Forty-five years later, it sounds freaky-fresh with its syncopated wooden flutes capturing the escalated (since the ’70s) insanity of teen parties.
Sunny Suljic and Na-kel Smith
Like so many high school movies that feature newcomer actors who go on to major movie careers, in “Mid90s” there would appear to be two for whom that career trajectory will happen: Sunny Suljic is a shoo-in for a substantial acting career, as well as Na-kel Smith, who plays Ray—the leader of the gang who’s too cool, accomplished, self-confident, and socially smooth to need a nickname.
An honorary mention goes to the biracial Olan Prenatt, looking like a male teenaged version of Maya Rudolph with long, curly blond tresses. He has a nickname The Epoch Times can’t print. His character is destined for alcoholism or stand-up comedy, whichever comes first.
Acne-ridden Fourth Grade (Ryder McLaughlin) is, according to Ray, “so poor he can’t even buy socks.” Fourth Grade’s constantly filming the others skating, and he’s waxing optimistic about someday starting his own film company, which nobody else takes seriously.
Stevie gains his nickname, Sunburn, in a heated discussion where Fourth Grade has posed the question, “Do black people get sunburns?” (Fourth Grade’s nickname comes from the popular game “Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?”). Stevie is put on the spot as to his opinion and stammers, “What are black people?” It’s cute as heck.
Also cute is Stevie getting hit on by an older girl, who inquires after his sexual experience, to which Stevie replies that he’s a gentleman who doesn’t kiss and tell. Which is a smooth lie for a 13-year-old. And while she, in her inherent female sagacity, recognizes it as such, he gets props for pulling it off well.
Hill’s made another version of the Peter Pan archetype, another finger pointing at the lost traditions of ancient male culture. There is no larger tribe to belong to; there are no warriors, hunters, fathers, uncles, and grandfathers anywhere to be seen, who establish mores, set boundaries, and turn boys into true men. There is no one to lead these particular Lost Boys to the realm of the sacred-masculine.
And when that doesn’t happen, you get gangs. Single moms, girlfriends, and gangs of boys can’t turn boys into men. Only men can. Otherwise, you get this version of toxic non-masculinity. And by telling this tale, Jonah Hill sets foot on the path of a cultural influencer, who has the power and the potential to help rectify this lack. Let’s see what he does next.
Director: Jonah Hill
Starring: Lucas Hedges, Sunny Suljic, Katherine Waterston, Na-kel Smith, Olan Prenatt, Ryder McLaughlin, Gio Galicia
Rated: Not Rated
Running time: 1 hour, 24 minutes
Release Date: Oct. 19
Rated 3.5 stars out of 5