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Jonah Hill has made the ultimate coming of age streetwear film

The directorial debut from the nascent style icon is a touching homage to the influences that made him

This month, Patrik Sandberg is at Toronto International Film Festival reporting for Dazed on the good, the bad, and the downright ugly.

Mid90s, the directorial debut from actor (and emergent streetwear style starJonah Hill opens with a full body slam against the side of a hallway. 13-year-old Stevie, played with appealing naïvete by newcomer Sunny Suljic (The Killing of a Sacred Deer), is getting his ass kicked by his older brother, Ian (Lucas Hedges, well against type). Ian warns Stevie to stay out of his room and Stevie does the opposite, an opening sequence of the film that plays out as a lullaby-laden, nostalgia trip through a teenager’s preciously organised bedroom, an altar to hip hop and alternative CDs, streetwear, and Air Force 1s. Is it any surprise that Hill opens his first movie with an ambient prayer to the streetwear gods? Set to Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s narcotic, shoegazey score, Hill forces sentimentality over Mobb Deep posters, copies of The Source magazine, Nike sneakers, and Fat Joe compact discs. It’s a practice that continues for the good first half of the film.

For many of us who grew up in the 90s and are now culture makers, there appears to be a wave of post-adolescent navel gazing back in time to pay homage to the works that formed our aesthetic sensibilities. For Hill, cinematically speaking, it appears to be the work of Larry Clark, Penelope Spheeris, and Linklater. But quite superficially, it’s the Teenage Mutant Ninja turtles, as seen on Stevie’s bedspread. Street Fighter, emblazoned across a T-shirt. In fact, everything appears to be a pop cultural license, which felt like something of a critique but more so an earnest appreciation for all the things that coloured our childhoods: Beavis and Butthead, Ren and Stimpy, Cypress Hill, Supersoakers, the SONY Discman, Champion sweatshirts, Nintendo, bags of Doritos, KOOL’S cigarettes, Blockbuster Video, an endless collage of skateboarding brand logos.

Though Ian beats the daylights out of Stevie, Stevie worships him as the ultimate arbiter of cool, and sets out on an odyssey to become cool and impress his older brother. As anyone with siblings will know, these sorts of exploits normally backfire, Ian growing more outraged the cooler Stevie tries to become. Again, Hedges vanishes into character impressively, with only some darker hair dye and a shape-up haircut to differentiate him from the sensitive theatre kid he played in Ladybird, or the grief-stricken punk musician that earned him his Oscar nomination in Manchester By The Sea. Ian is a secondary character but one whose approval or disgust casts a patina over everything else that happens. As their frustrated mother, Katherine Waterston creates a fully formed character with only a few scenes, someone who had kids too young and tries to do right by them, while regretting her way through a series of bad boyfriends that don’t ever seem to be right for her.

“Is it any surprise that Hill opens his first movie with an ambient prayer to the streetwear gods?”

When Stevie sees a group of skateboarders heckling a store owner, he decides this is his chance. A character defined by his constant audacity, Stevie ingratiates himself with these much cooler, much older kids first quietly, and then through acts of blind courage that earn their respect. For this crew, Hill and casting director Allison Jones (Freaks and Geeks, Ladybird) have found a charismatic and scene-chomping crew of young actors, particularly the affecting Gio Galicia as Ruben, a bigmouthed braggart who finds himself silenced by his inexperience next to the other kids, and Olan Prenatt as “Fuckshit”, the clown of the group. But it’s Ray, the most talented skater and most conscientious of the gang, played with grace by Na-kel Smith, who becomes the most important figure in young Stevie’s life. In a group of beautiful losers, he shines as a beacon of believing in something better for yourself.

“Hill’s movie dreamily captures the ambience of southern California teenage partying amid the region’s euphoric architecture”

Under the steady and sun-soaked cinematography of Christopher Blauvelt (The Bling Ring), Hill’s movie dreamily captures the ambience of southern California teenage partying amid the region’s euphoric architecture. Skating is about public space, surfaces and grooves, and Blauvelt’s camera brings languid movement to the story that gives it its own sense of self, despite the fact that it occupies a now-oversaturated genre. It’s all quite familiar, it fails to quite capture the beauty of skateboarding the way that some other films this year have, and the film is plagued by a dialectical disconnect in regard to the period (kids then didn’t use all the same slang as kids now). Still, its winning performances, attention to detail, and the geeky amount of affection Hill devotes to everything from T-shirts to bedroom wall paraphernalia makes this something of a male answer to Ladybird. Even if things were bloody or bruised back then, there’s beauty in seeing what we choose to take with us.