Mid90s: Skate life imitating art

A movie about teens drinking, smoking pot and skateboarding is probably the unlikeliest of candidates to be the subject of a high-concept art film.

But actor Jonah Hill’s first foray into writing and directing is nothing short of Grade-A, top shelf cinema regardless of how rebellious or controversial the subject matter might be.

One of the best independent films this year, “Mid90s” is a visceral, intense drama masquerading as skater comedy, projecting strength while subtly revealing shame and emotional weakness like its young lead.

Audiences follow Stevie, a 13-year-old boy living with a single mom and abusive older brother in Los Angeles.

He finds solace in a group of impoverished area kids who all hang out at the local skate shop and introduce him into a world of camaraderie among social outcasts.

“Mid90s” is uncomfortable to watch at times as Stevie attempts to impress his four older friends by partying with a devil-may-care attitude and taking high risks and big falls skateboarding.

The savagery of Stevie’s physical and emotional scarring carries over to home life where the violence is all too realistically played out in wide shots that make the room seem empty of anything but repressed pain.

Young actor Sunny Suljic approaches Stevie with an irrational confidence that belies the character’s insecurities and masks inner turmoil. His performance hinges on the things Suljic doesn’t say or do as Stevie, but rather on the emotion viewers see festering in Suljic’s eyes.

Pro skateboarder Na-kel Smith dazzles audiences in his acting debut with a key supporting role as Ray, the de facto leader of Stevie’s circle of friends.

The talent Smith displays on his board pales in comparison to the largely unspoken bond he creates with Suljic to capture the film’s most emotional and lingering moments.

Oscar nominee Lucas Hedges makes his presence felt both emotionally and physically with an uncharacteristic and aggressive turn as Stevie’s older brother, but both Hedges and character actress Katherine Waterston as Stevie’s mother occupy the fringes of “Mid90s” far too much.

“Mid90s” is a tour de force effort from Hill, a two-time Academy Award nominated actor crafting his own voice in cinema with a raw, emotional, vibrant film that seamlessly fuses veteran performers with first time actors.

Hill collaborates with cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt to create a richly 1990s visual aesthetic to the movie, led by the decisions to shoot on “Super 16” film and in a square 4:3 aspect ratio that harkens back to television viewing experiences of that era.

The film is bathed in the natural light of Los Angeles under a tinted yellow glow that gives an appearance of faded memory without becoming obtrusive or distracting. As a result, “Mid90s” has the appearance of being lived in, accenting the raw and authentic performances from the first time actors on screen.

The film’s close examination of skate culture in simple, human terms draws wonderful, serendipitous parallels to the Oscar-contending documentary “Minding The Gap,” now streaming on Hulu.

The film’s only true flaw stems from either a storytelling or editing decision by Hill to make “Mid90s” a staccato, fragmented slice of life piece that never really goes much of anywhere over the course of its 84 minute run time.

There’s a clear picture of who Hill’s characters are – aside from Stevie’s mother and brother – and what audiences are to make of their societal draw, but “Mid90s” lacks the sense of drive that would propel it beyond a bird’s eye view of faded memory.

Clearly a passion project for Hill, “Mid90s” represents a solid foundation for directorial work to come and yet is rough enough around the edges that it still feels slightly incomplete.

“Mid90s” is unlikely to receive major consideration this award season, though the film as a whole and its young stars are certainly worthy. Smith especially should be rewarded for a brilliantly understated performance in a supporting role.

Brutal and uncompromising, “Mid90s” packs more emotional punch than would be expected of a slacker skater movie.

It’s as if Hill poured his 15-year-old heart out onto film and laid bare the raw frustrations of boys forced to become men by circumstance.

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