I went to see mid90s, Jonah Hill’s debut as a director (he also wrote the script) expecting—ok, dreading—something along the lines of Larry Clark’s exploitative Kids. To my surprise, what I got was a lot closer to Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird, an autobiographically tinged portrait of a youthful era demonstrating that the maker’s future may lie behind the camera as much as in front of it.
Clocking in well under 90 minutes (one of Hill’s strength is all the stuff he doesn’t bother including), mid90s follows a formative summer in the life of Stevie (Sunny Suljic, from Killing of a Sacred Deer). The thirteen-ish boy lives in a featureless LA house with his well-meaning but ineffectual mother (Katherine Waterston) and his bullying older brother (Lucas Hedges), who probably has a different father from him. Despite the brutal beatings him gets for his efforts, Stevie hero worships his brother, if only because he has no other model to get from childhood into whatever comes next.
That alternate route comes when he sees a group of older boys hanging around at a skater shop, talking trash and practicing with their boards. Determined to be part of something, Stevie manages to ingratiate himself. He’s both young and desperate enough to throw himself at every challenge they present without hesitation. But he’s also too young to separate the good from the bad in the new experiences that come flooding into his life.
For most viewers, a movie like this is largely an exercise in cultural anthropology: unless you grew up in Los Angeles 25 years ago, you’re unlikely to say, Hey, that’s just what my teenage years were like! But there are enough universal touchstones to involve you in it: in the end, these are more like other kids than they are different from them. And perhaps thanks to his professional upbringing in ensemble comedies, Hill gets strong performances from all of his young cast, most of whom are experienced skaters but new to acting.
“New to acting” is a phrase you could use to describe no one onscreen in Tea with the Dames: each member of its cast averages about 70 years in the profession. The title is literal: the four women who gather for tea, as they have for years, are all Dames of the British Empire: Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, Eileen Atkins, and Joan Plowright.
The original title for this British documentary was Nothing Like a Dame, which is better in that it takes some of the starch out of your expectations. These are four smart women of wide experience, and it’s inevitable that the movie is going to leave you with a curiosity to hear what they talk about when they’re not on camera. As is, there’s plenty of moderately amusing dish on hand, much of it at the expense of Laurence Olivier (one time owner of the Sussex cottage where they gather, now the retirement home of his nearly blind widow Plowright.) Director Roger Michell (Notting Hill) guides the conversation at times and pads the screen with plentiful clips of his star quartet in the younger days, mostly from the theatrical appearances that are clearly what they consider their most important work. It’s not as much fun as it could be, I suppose, but the ladies must keep some secrets. Now playing at the Dipson Eastern Hills Cinema.