Jonah Hill's Lady Bird-like coming of age pic, his directorial debut, is an uneven nostalgia trip
MID90S SPEC D: Jonah Hill. U.S. 110 min. Sep 14, 6 pm, Ryerson. See listing. Rating: NNN
Jonah Hill’s Lady Bird catalogues as many soundtrack and visual signifiers as it can from the period it nostalgically reels back in the title.
There’s Ninja Turtles, Street Fighter, Nintendo 64 and early Wu-Tang. There are also charming brats, homing in on the slang from two decades before while zipping back-and-forth on skateboards within the confines of the film’s boxy 4:3 aspect ratio.
They’re filling out the contours of a coming-of-age tale, though the film doesn’t really bother with showing too much measurable growth on screen. That’s what makes Mid90s feel both refreshing but narrow in aim, its slice-of-life ethos simply capturing childhood moments without burdening the characters with having to mature for narrative satisfaction.
At the centre is Sunny Suljic’s terrific performance as Stevie, the 13-year-old persistently bullied by an older brother played by Lucas Hedges, who does a damn fine job bottling up confused white boy rage. Stevie finds a space for himself among a loitering skater crew led by Na-Kel Smith’s Ray and Olan Prenett’s Fuckshit (that’s what they call him because he regularly, hilariously reacts to anything and everything with “fuck, shit”).
All these actors are charming as they hang about drinking, smoking, skating and rambling on about the most random things, acting out a sweeter take on Larry Clark’s mid-90s film Kids.
There’s going to be lots of conversation about their casual (albeit authentic) use of the N-word and homophobic slurs. The former is strictly used among the POCs in the cast, while there are no identifiably gay characters to own the latter.
Hill is a white male director making a film on hip-hop beats about a white kid who could proudly announce “But my friends are black.” Hill recognizes the volatility here, addressed hilariously when the kids are having a conversation about what it is to be black. When it’s Stevie’s turn to chime in, as the new kid on the block, he awkwardly asks, “What’s a black person?”
Like Sam Levinson, another white male director awkwardly tip-toeing around race issues in TIFF title Assassination Nation, Hill shows his caution sometimes comically but also with preciousness in how he handles Na-Kel Smith’s Ray. He’s the Black character in the crew (the others are either mixed or white), which is perhaps why Hill gives him the most tragic back story, but he’s also the gentlest and wisest, presiding over the misfits like Sidney Poitier from To Sir With Love.
Smith is so great in this role that it would be easy to ignore that this is an archetype, one that’s not demeaning but, like so much in this film, feels limiting.