Best-known as the chubby, lippy comic actor from Superbad, Moneyball and The Wolf of Wall Street, Jonah Hill turns director for a woozy coming-of-age movie set on the streets of California to the beats of 90s hip hop.
Hill makes a generally smooth transition, with a few bumps – as you’d expect from a skateboarding movie. It’s the story of a reserved 13-year-old, Stevie, who finds comfort and belonging with a little gang of skateboarders on Motor Avenue. They nickname him Sunburn and suddenly he’s one of them.
Stevie has to hide his new identity and hobby from his single mother (Katherine Waterson) and his bullying older brother (Lucas Hedges), but his behaviour begins to change when the skateboarders – Ray, Fuckshit, Ruben and Fourth Grade – introduce him to booze, spliff and girls.
Hill explores the tensions between the boys, the petty jealousies as well as the hopes and hidden family lives. Stevie watches it all with wide-eyes and a determination to fit in, including having his first sexual experience at a party where his innocence becomes his major attraction. Sunny Suljic is lovely in the role.
Rolling in at a trim 85 minutes, there’s loads of life in the film and lots of development. It’s light rather than slight, and suffused in gorgeous LA hues by Christopher Blauvelt’s photography, bounced along by the year’s best soundtrack, with original score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross and source tunes from ESG, Mamma and the Pappas, Nirvana and cracking 90s hip hop from Pharcyde, A Tribe Called Quest and Del the Funky Homo Sapien, who actually makes a cameo.
Sometimes, Hill gets a bit flashy, indulging in Scorsese homage (Goodfellas plays briefly on a TV), but he did work with the maestro and, you know, who else you gonna reference when you’re out on the Mean Streets doing montages set to music?
There’s a really wonderful sequence of the boys going to a party after taking some drugs (ADHD inhibitors, I think) and it’s set to Herbie Hancock’s Watermelon Man from Headhunters, which just sounds great and looks cool, all freeze frames and quick pans, like Larry Clark still photos. And the dialogue (banter?) between the boys is really sharp and funny. It’s a film about growing up, but it’s also a film about the streets, the era and the area.
All in all, a cherishable, heartfelt debut with phat beats and great faces.