Jonah's Hill's coming-of-age movie Mid90s is shot in a constricted, boxy 16mm format, and the effect is like looking at the characters through a hole in a fence.
That's appropriate for the subject at hand, Hill's vérité snapshot of young skateboarders hanging out in Los Angeles. It plays like a sort of updated Our Gang, if Spanky and the lads had used obscene and forbidden language.
The loosely arranged story follows a lonely 14-year-old Stevie (Sunny Suljic) as he seeks to find his place in a pod of skaters, hanging out on the fringe of the group as they lounge in a skate shop, listening to their insular banter, waiting for some sign that he'll be invited to join.
It comes in the form of a small but unmistakable gesture – during a sweaty skate session somebody asks him to fill the water jug. He's been noticed, and he knows it. The ear-to-ear grin on his face tells us as much. What follows is as informed and often engaging study in the way group friendships work in adolescence — the rites of passage, the rituals (who gets a nickname, and who doesn't) the camaraderie and even the friction of displacement as members earn status that disrupts the carefully calibrated pecking order.
Hill, who wrote the screenplay, has an ear for (or an acute memory of) the rambling conversation of bored teens – Stevie's own nickname, Sunburn, comes from a meandering five-way conversation about whether black people need to wear sunscreen.
Mid90s captures the thrill of belonging – especially meaningful to Stevie, who has incentive to spend as much time away from home as possible. He sees the "dates" of his single mom (Katherine Waterston) hitching up their trousers in morning, and sibling rivalry has manifested itself as troubling physical abuse (Lucas Hedges in a small role as the older brother).
Even his skateboarding family has problems. There are obvious signs, for instance, that an easygoing skater (Olan Prenatt) who likes to party is in fact on the cusp of a serious alcohol and drug problem. Will Stevie follow him down that road? The group's best athlete and de facto leader (Na-kel Smith) warns him against it. The second half of the movie is too much bound up in this, and what starts as a study of the anatomy of teen friendship becomes dominated by the looming specter of substance abuse and related daggers.
Connecting all of it is Stevie's appetite for risk, also a consistent source of visual interest. The tiny Suljic is a compellingly vulnerable figure, attempting skate stunts beyond his grasp, or chugging a 40-ounce beer almost as big as he is.
His fearlessness is his best asset, and maybe his biggest flaw – one scene has him mistiming a jump and landing with a thud, unconscious but unbowed.
Hill uses a period Pixies tune to explain Sunburn – you'll think he's dead, but he sails away on a wave of mutilation.
Directed by Jonah Hill. With Sunny Suljic, Lucas Hedges, Katherine Waterson and Na-kel Smith. Distributed by A24.
Running time: 84 minutes
Parents guide: R (language, drug use, sexuality)
Playing at: Area theaters