Jonah Hill's Directorial Debut Mid90s Is As Earnest As He Is

Photo: Tobin Yelland.
I've had this theory that Jonah Hill is extremely earnest for awhile. It started when he joined Instagram last spring (@jonahhill — if you don't follow please do so immediately). He didn't just post, he effused — about his family, his friends, and his upcoming directorial debut mid90s. "He's just so earnest," I'd say to anyone around me, and anyone on Twitter, and anyone reading Refinery29. His enthusiasm and passion felt so real and unexpectedly authentic that I began to believe that this person, this 34-year-old Oscar-nominated actor with 60 films to his name, really was that genuine. And, well, I was right.
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mid90s is a different kind of coming-of-age story, just like Hill is a different kind of actor-director. Hill is the unexpected product of his own personal 10-year self-directed film school, where he studied under some of the greatest modern directors like the Coen brothers, Martin Scorsese, and Cary Fukunaga. The movie he created at first appears to be a combination of skate porn and teenage rebellion, but it's really a movie about self-discovery and adolescent escapism. Released by A24, mid90s is told through the lens of Stevie (Sunny Suljic), a 13-year-old Los Angeles native growing up in a simple home with an absent and ill-equipped mom (Katherine Waterston), and an abusive and resentful older brother (Lucas Hedges). He finds refuge in a crowd of misfit skaters after he stumbles upon their how-does-this-make-any-money skate shop down the road from him. The Motor Avenue Skateshop crew — Fuckshit (Olan Prenatt), Fourth Grade (Ryder McLaughlin), Ruben (Gio Galicia), and Ray (Na-kel Smith) — isn't a bad influence, per say, but they definitely aren't kid friendly. For a lost soul, this unlikely crowd, and counterculture world, immediately feels like home.
The heartfelt charm of the movie lies in the impressive performances, not just from the two biggest names (Suljic, who also appeared in Yorgos Lanthimos' haunting The Killing of a Sacred Deer, and Hedges, who was nominated for an Academy Award for Manchester by the Sea and probably will be again this year for Boy Erased), but from the skaters cast to play a role they know like the back of their hand. The skaters turned actors emit a buzzy energy that can't be faked.
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Watching the movie for the first time in a completely packed advance screening at Crosby Street Hotel, I could feel how special it is. It makes you feel like a kid again, in all its ugliness and awkwardness, much like other stand-out teen-centric films like Eighth Grade, Skate Kitchen, and, of course, Lady Bird. The soundtrack nails the mid-'90s era without feeling overly nostalgic, and the guys feel so real, covered in scrapes and bruises. The cast was at the screening (someone please write about Suljic's killer style), and Hill was there, too, both before the film to take a photo of the seated crowd with his point-and-shoot camera, and after, to mingle in his full all-black director's look. Making the rounds, Hill stopped by the table where I was standing to thank me for coming to see his movie.
Like Stevie in the skating community, Hill is equal parts nervous and psyched to be there. He's talking to film nerds about the different types of shots he used ("Is that a Scorsese shot?" one asks. "No, it's a Jonah shot," he replies, laughing, but really dead serious.) And music nerds ask how he chose songs for the soundtrack (which you can listen to on Spotify). I'm listening to him schmooze, thinking Lol, my Earnest King is literally right next to me chalking it up, and thinking about how I bought a 64-ounce water bottle because I saw him using it once. We talk about his sister, Beanie Feldstein (Queen of Talent and his actual hero), how important the first scene of the movie is (it's a brutal first look at a day in Stevie's life, but the follow-up montage is so tender and sweet), and then a little bit more about Beanie.
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Later that week, the day of mid90s' surprise New York Film Festival screening, Hill and I would chat again, this time on the phone. Ahead, he explains why the lack of women in the film was purposeful, why his sister will be his next collaborator, and why he feels like he's living out his one genie wish. Oh, and he gets earnest as hell.
Refinery29: Are you excited about [the screening] tonight?
Jonah Hill: "I’m so nervous and so excited. But can I just tell you, those screenings can be so awkward. You’re so friendly and kind, and I actually enjoy talking to you, so thank you for making that less awkward for me."
Thank you, I’m so happy to hear that. You have such fanboys.
"I’m not a bro-y person. I’m really surrounded by women, like my sister and I work with women. So the fact that Refinery29… I love your website. I go on it. So to me, it’s not like I wanna be some bro-y person, I love that you loved... liked the movie."
Thank you! And I did love the movie.
"That actually means a lot. I get to talk to you guys, and also, like, all these film nerds, too. I love the film nerds because I’m a film nerd talking about aspect ratios. [Laughs]. "
When you walked away, I guess they were half-following what we were talking about, but they asked “Wait, are you his sister?” I was like, Oh, no! It was very funny.
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"It's so much fun! And exactly a year ago I went to see my sister and my hero Beanie in Lady Bird at New York Film Festival, and that was the first time I saw Lady Bird. So, I’m standing out there with Greta, the new New York Film Festival official filmmaker Greta Gerwig. [It had once been] Greta and I and all these young actors auditioning together, all of us wanting to be filmmakers. So it’s crazy not only because of Beanie, but I was looking at this NYFF banner like, ‘Wow, Greta really did it. She landed it. She made it happen. Good for her.' I was like a month away from starting editing mid90s. Could you imagine? If I had a genie lamp, my one wish would be to have mid90s be at the New York Film Festival. It’s a dream."
You’ve said in interviews before that this period of your life right now is one you’ve been working towards. You’re at a really good place right now, and I think it really shows with the movie and everything that you’re doing.
"Yeah, that’s so right. It’s an incredible experience to share something you love with people, and incredibly frightening."
Since you mentioned Lady Bird — have you seen that people were calling it Lady Bird for boys?
"I heard a great one for it: Skatey Bird. [Laughs]."
Ray is one of my favorite characters I’ve seen this year. I was not expecting him to be such a warm and inviting character. What was the casting process like?
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"I knew I was gonna use real skaters and turn them into actors and not vice versa, because it really relies on you believing that these are these kids. Sunny happened to be a great skateboarder and an actor, so we got really lucky right away. He was the first one we cast. Na-kel came in because he was friends with our co-producer, Mikey Alfred. No matter what [Na-kel] said, even if it was funny, there was such depth behind it. Just such an unbelievably deep, kind, serious, intelligent human being. I was just like, 'This guy has it. I have to get this guy to work.' He worked so hard. He wanted it so badly, and he inspired the other kids to have that same attitude. He helped me a lot because all the younger kids looked up to him, as well as professional skateboarders.
"He was scared to be that vulnerable and emotional but I said, ‘It’s like skateboarding. If you go halfway, you’re gonna fall and you’re gonna fail, you know? It’s my job to make you look good, and I swear to you on my life if you go for it, I promise I will make you look good.' He just gave it his all, and his performance is the breakout performance of the film.
He’s obviously so good at skating so it would have been impressive to just see him skate a lot, but the movie’s more about the actual growing up experience.
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"Skateboarding has been notoriously butchered onscreen, and one of the big goals of the film was to show it not from a place of authority, but from a place of love and admiration, and something that means more than what the veneer is. It provides a community for people; it provides family outside of your home. There’s a lot more deeper emotions to something that people look at on the outside and just view as one thing. You don’t have to care about skateboarding — it could be ballet; it could be anything that really just provides community and falling in love with something for the first time. I can show [the guys] skateboarding all day. I can shoot the shit out of it. But to me, that’s not interesting. I want you to care about the people. I want these people to be what you’re watching, not anything else, you know?"
I think the skateboarding world makes a particularly great backdrop for a coming-of-age story. And you skated when you were younger, too. Why do you think it’s such a good backdrop for that?
"So many great artists come from skateboarding. It represents a time in your life when you’re trying to figure things out, when things are painful, things are extreme, and your emotions are so high because you’re a teenager. And you have this outlet. There’s a certain type of person that wants to fall over and over again, and there’s a certain person who can stand that. I think there’s always just something beautiful about it."
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There was a distinct lack of female presence other than the one party scene and obviously Katherine Waterston’s character. Were women purposefully left out to show that there was a lack of female guidance or energy?
"One hundred percent. It was all super deliberate. The way they speak about sexuality, it’s not about connection or having a joyous sexual experience. Hooking up was a way to gain currency within the group. It’s a way to rape. And that’s a fucked up lesson that people have to unlearn from that time period. Sexuality isn’t currency, it should be about connection and two people wanting to experience something together. Skating and toxic masculine culture in the '90s, in certain groups that’s how it was. And these lessons, we’re seeing now, have to be unlearned."
Is that why you felt it was so important to include that scene in the party with Stevie and Estee? The guys congratulating him is such a status-changing moment for him, but it is really uncomfortable to watch.
"Right! The point is that this young man is terrified and did not enjoy the experience. And he’s not not enjoying it, but he’s terrified, right? The only moment you see him smile and enjoy it is when he’s about to go tell his friends that it happened. They celebrate him for it, and that’s super deliberate."
Would you direct any women’s stories in the future?
"Yeah, to me it’s really important to work with my sister. My sister is my best friend and my hero. To me, until I can figure out another personal movie to write, I definitely wanna ask, ‘What do you want to do’ and ‘How can I help you tell a story that I maybe could direct you in?’ I want to enable her, if I can, [but] she doesn’t need me in any way. I won't even get her on the phone next year [laughs]. Of course, this story has a lot to do with what it was like to be a young man in the mid-'90s, and a lot of that adolescent humor and toxic masculinity is shown so abrasively. I would love to tell more female-centric stories — but this one just happens to not be it because it was just this specific story. It kind of had to do with the lack of female influence at that time."
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One more thing, congrats on your Adidas collab. I don’t know if you’ve dropped what it is yet, but that’s very exciting.
"I can’t talk about it yet, but let’s just say it’s amazing, and it’s coming soon."
I think you should work with Hydro Flask next. I bought a white one because I saw a photo of you with it.
"You got the water bottles because you saw me having them? You’re my hero! Literally, that’s the coolest thing I’ve ever heard, that I could make a trend. That’s the illest thing I’ve ever heard. Now you've got to decorate it, because, for me, I'm super schmaltzy and a lot of my friends are creative people so they'll give me stickers on it and they'll sign it. It just reminds me of my friends and gives me a cozy, warm feeling."
Make mid90s stickers and I'll put them all over mine.
"Oh my goodness, why are you such a..." [Author's note: The audio is bad because I was laughing, but I think he said "genius."]
mid90s hits select theaters October 19. See it with friends.
Interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
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