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'Mid90s' a promising debut for Jonah Hill as writer-director

The period piece follows a 13-year-old who befriends a group of Los Angeles skaters.

Sunny Suljic, left, and Na-kel Smith in a

Sunny Suljic, left, and Na-kel Smith in a scene from "Mid90s," written and directed by Jonah Hill. Photo Credit: A24

"Mid90s"

Directed by Jonah Hill

Starring Sunny Suljic, Katherine Waterston, Lucas Hedges, Na-Kel Smith

Rated R

Playing at AMC Loews Lincoln Square, Regal Union Square Stadium

Jonah Hill shows promise as a writer-director with "Mid90s," his debut behind the camera, and there is a lot to admire in this earnest period piece about a 13-year-old who befriends a group of Los Angeles skaters — even if several key choices prevent it from achieving its fullest potential.

For one thing, rather than swimming in nostalgia and cramming the production design with vintage references, Hill keeps the movie rooted in the personal growth of protagonist Stevie (Sunny Suljic), as he seeks to escape his unhappy home life with mom Dabney (Katherine Waterston) and his older brother Ian (Lucas Hedges), who is prone to fits of violent aggression.

The emotional currents are precisely rendered — Hill shows a real understanding of why boys act out and profits immensely from his star's knack for balancing his character's intense anger and loneliness with his eagerness to be accepted by the older kids in his newfound group of friends.

A first-rate production team, including cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt (a frequent collaborator of the great director Kelly Reichardt) and music by none other than Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, allows for an authentically naturalistic depiction of rebellious youth culture on the city's gritty, wayward streets.

But other impulses lessen the dramatic impact and suggest that Hill could have used some more time with his screenplay. There are attempted comic touches that undercut entire scenes, including the decision to nickname one of the main characters something too profane to be repeated here and to then have other characters speak about him and repeat that nickname with great tenderness and concern that becomes instantly harder to take seriously.

At other key moments, the story takes abrupt and convoluted turns that dilute the drama and could have been easily smoothed out. It seems as if Hill does not fully trust his best instincts: to let his camera and perspective fully wander toward a verite sense of this world. So the movie never quite achieves the same level of transfixing, unforced power as some of its predecessors in this dramatic space.

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