[Screen It]


(2018) (Sunny Suljic, Katherine Waterston) (R)

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Drama: A 13-year-old boy growing up in mid-1990s Southern California gets in with a group of older skateboarders to escape his troubled home life.
Stevie (SUNNY SULJIC) is a directionless 13-year-old boy who lives with his single mother, Dabney (KATHERINE WATERSTON), and violent, ill-tempered older brother, Ian (LUCAS HEDGES). He craves connection and fun and falls in with a group of mostly older skateboarders who live carefree, smoke, drink, party, and talk nonsense all day long.

These boys include: Ray (NA-KEL SMITH), who has the skills to possibly become a professional skateboarder; F*cksh*t (OLAN PRENATT), the group's ill-nicknamed ne'er-do-well who just wants to live in the moment each day; Fourth Grade (RYDER McLAUGHLIN), who comes from an extremely poor family and dreams of being a filmmaker; and Ruben (GIO GALICIA), who is closest to Stevie's age and comes from a home of abuse and drugs. They take Stevie in, for the most, and he proves himself with a crazy skateboard stunt that nearly kills him.

But petty jealousies threaten to unravel the small circle. F*cksh*t can feel Ray may be on the verge of moving on. Ruben gets jealous that Stevie immediately surpasses him with the older boys. And Fourth Grade can't seem to say anything right. Meanwhile, Stevie gets punched on by his older brother; has a first-time sexual encounter with an older girl, Estee (ALEXA DEMIE); and his mother tries her best to be a good parent, even though she has no husband and still sees a succession of men.

OUR TAKE: 4.5 out of 10
As an actor, Jonah Hill has proven to be an effective dramatic and comedic presence in films as diverse as "Moneyball," "The Wolf of Wall Street," and "War Dogs." As a director, his debut film "mid90s" shows occasional flourishes of some of the top directors he has worked with over the years, namely Martin Scorsese, Judd Apatow, and Greg Mottola. As a screenwriter? Well, let's just say Jonah's never met a line of dialogue he didn't think he could make better with an "f" word or two or fourteen!

Unleashed on the indie movie scene and film festival circuit, Hill's "mid90s" is a profane, yet affectionate snapshot of Southern California's skateboarding culture of the mid-1990s. Three decades earlier, there were good-hearted beach bums looking for surf, sand, and sex, many of whom became the hippies of the latter part of that decade. This flick shows the same sort of fun-loving, unmotivated ne'er-do-wells who had replaced surfboards with skateboards, yet didn't really amount to much in the pre-9/11 era.

Hill has a lot of affection for his band of chatty, teen losers he centers his flick around. His failing, though, is that he doesn't get his audience to feel much for these characters. Hill's "mid90s" is a directionless film about directionless boys, and nobody or nothing amounts to anything. I am not taking off any points for a lack of ambition here. I like slice-of-life movies. But, generally, I want such movies to ultimately be about some sort of forward progress. Think "American Graffiti." Think "Boyz N the Hood." Think "Good Will Hunting."

The film is certainly cast well enough to resonate. Sunny Suljic is the lead, playing a 13-year-old boy named Stevie who gets in with a local group of older skateboarders to escape his troubled home life. He particularly looks up to Ray (Na-Kel Smith), who has the skills to be a skateboarding pro. And he is amused by Ray's profane, motor-mouthed best friend "F*cksh*t" (yeah, Hill ha-ha) played by newcomer Olan Prenatt. Soon, Stevie is attempting dangerous skateboard jumps, guzzling beer, and smoking cigarettes, then running home and swigging mouthwash and spraying Lysol on himself to hide the smells from his single mother (Katherine Waterston) and hot-headed older brother (Lucas Hedges, who should have found a better follow-up than this to "Manchester by the Sea" and "Lady Bird").

Stevie's home life is sketchy at best and plays right out of Dysfunctional Indie Family Movie 101. The heart of the film is in his interactions with Ray and the gang. At times, the lines play like imitation Kevin Smith dialogue (F*cksh*t even vaguely resembles Smith's recurring Jay character). At other times, like in a heart-to-heart scene between Ray and Stevie, Hill and his young actors nail the moment perfectly. I just never knew if Hill wanted some of his key moments to play as drama or comedy. Hedges' Ian struts around at times like Bill Paxton's Chet from "Weird Science" er, until his demeanor turns on a dime and becomes something quite unsettling. But then Hill has him walking around guzzling orange juice at all times. Funny? Pathetic? I dunno.

Hill's natural instinct is to go for the laugh, and I wish he skewed more toward comedy than drama here. It would have made for a better film. Even the ending kind of irked me. Did Hill really play to end his film there? Or did he just run out of money? "Mid90s" is a noble first-time effort, but I'm not sure it's worth your money, dear readers. I give it a 4.5 out of 10. (T. Durgin)

Reviewed October 22, 2018 / Posted October 26, 2018

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