Jonah Hill makes an electric directing debut with coming-of-age drama Mid90s

Movies that try to bottle youth culture — the slang, the shoes, the soundtrack — tend to have the built-in obsolescence of a Forever 21 window display. So maybe it’s just luck that Mid90s is set in another era (can it really be two decades ago already?). But it feels serendipitous, too, that it has Jonah Hill behind the camera.

Best known as the schlubby wild card in big-top films like Superbad and 21 Jump Street, and for his Oscar-nominated turns in Moneyball and The Wolf of Wall Street, Hill has chosen to root his writing and directing debut in his own life experience, and it shows.

Mid90s has already garnered endless comparisons to Larry Clark’s Kids, in that it’s about under-parented teenagers skating and smoking and talking about sex. But as much as his intimately shot, minimally plotted drama might bear a superficial resemblance to Clark’s 1995 lodestar, Hill has made something ultimately much sweeter and less nihilistic, and in many ways more deeply felt.

Sunny Suljic (Killing of a Sacred Deer) is Stevie, a boy living on the cusp of everything — Los Angeles, coolness, puberty — with his brooding older brother, Ian (Lucas Hedges), and young single mom, Dabney (Katherine Waterston), in a shabby but homey Southern California tract house.

His first skateboard, requisitioned from Ian, is the gateway drug; it’s how he gets in with a crew of older boys who go by a series of nonsensical, often NSFW nicknames (nearly all of them are played by pro skaters, including Na-Kel Smith and Olan Prenatt). To them Stevie is mostly ancillary, somewhere between a mascot and a little brother, but as they spend hours on street corners and parking lots, looking for the next perfect slice of concrete, he starts to become a genuine member of the crew.

There’s nothing in Mid90s’ arc that hasn’t been covered by a thousand coming-of-age movies before. Still, Hill makes his naturalistic story beats feel lived-in and true: Stevie and Ian’s increasing estrangement; Waterston’s scattered Dabney, still halfway a kid herself; and especially the way adolescent friendships are formed and break apart, or even start to feel like family. (The soundtrack, stacked with GZA and the Pharcyde and the Smiths, with a score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, is so perfectly drilled down it’s almost its own character.)

It’s fair play to say that your interest in this movie will directly correlate with your own age and your relative engagement with Ren and Stimpy references and Wu-Tang deep cuts. (Some early viewers have objected, too, to the script’s loose use of certain slurs, particularly against gay men.) Like all good filmmakers, though, Hill is too smart to mistake nostalgia and signifiers for storytelling. Instead, he makes Mid90s resonate with universal poignancy and electric energy; his kids are the best, messiest kind of real, and they’re alright.