STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Actor Jonah Hill grew up in the age of irony. For many young people in the '90s, it was cool not to care about anything. Those who did were mocked. One definition of nerd is just somebody who's really into something. In the world of a new movie directed by Jonah Hill, caring can mean you're not manly. Rachel Martin has the story of a film about which Hill cares a lot.
RACHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: Jonah Hill didn't want his first directing project to be just anything. He wanted a story that mattered to him personally. "Mid90s" isn't a story about his life, per se, but it is about the universal longing of a teenage kid who just wants to fit in.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MID90S")
LUCAS HEDGES: (As Ian) You think you're pretty cool.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As friend) You good?
HEDGES: (As Ian) Your ghetto [expletive] friends. You're just a little kid.
MARTIN: It's about a group of friends growing up in LA - yes - in the '90s, and skateboarding is at the center of their universe. Jonah Hill was determined to treat it with that kind of reverence.
JONAH HILL: Skateboarding is always shown as, like, cowabunga, dude, and, like, you know? And it's offensive. And so skateboarding is really sensitive, even when they heard, oh, the kid from "Superbad's" going to make a skateboarding movie? You know, like, thumbs down.
MARTIN: That was the reaction?
HILL: Yeah. Skateboarding is the most protective, insular community, which is why it's so difficult to make a film involving it. It's butchered. You know, it's misunderstood. Imagine if there was, like, 10 movies about NPR hosts and none of them had ever...
MARTIN: We can only wish. Right?
HILL: (Laughter). That's my next film.
MARTIN: (Laughter). Right.
HILL: But none of them had ever stepped foot in a recording booth and interviewed anybody. You know what I mean?
HILL: So it's like any really proud subculture.
MARTIN: So that's the backdrop. At the center of the story is a 13-year-old named Stevie. Things are bad for him at home. His brother beats him up. He is lonely and looking for some kind of connection. Stevie sees this group of kids hanging out in front of a skate shop, and instantly, he feels close to their tribe.
HILL: It's the kind of closeness you can see from 10,000 miles away. It's sort of an idiosyncratic, perverse closeness layered with a lot of toxic masculinity and, on the surface, cruelty, but such a deep connection and family situation.
MARTIN: Did you have that? Did you have that group of skateboarding friends?
HILL: I did. I've had it in many various ways, whether it was skateboarding, film. But I definitely felt like an outsider. I definitely felt like I didn't belong. And there's a certain person that skateboarding draws. You know, skateboarding now is such a - it's going to be an Olympic sport, for God's sakes, it's so mainstream. But when I started skateboarding, it was not cool, and society really looked down on you as a nuisance. One of the things I loved about it was the nonjudgmental-ness in certain ways of skateboarders. And I think that created a lens that I saw life through, whether it was sense of humor, musical taste, cinema taste. It really was an ethic, an aesthetic for me that I carry with me to this day.
MARTIN: There was something about - maybe it's just me, but it was the patter of how the guys talked to each other. Maybe that's universal. Like, this is how adolescent boys are with each other. They are stupid.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MID90S")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As boy) I love me a mature woman, though.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As shopkeeper) Get the [expletive] out of the front of my store.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As boy) [Expletive] you.
HILL: Yeah. And the only thing that's ever even come close - it's been such a magical experience showing this film because it is my heart. It is my heart and my soul. And the .01 percent where someone views the toxic masculinity or the homophobia as me thinking that's funny...
HILL: ...Has been heartbreaking because it was done so intentionally to hold a mirror up to how people in this generation grew up and the changes we're having to make in the wrong lessons we've learned. To me, they speak so aggressively about women and gay people that it's - that is how it was. And I felt it would be way more disrespectful to change history than to show it just as it was and let the audience see how ugly it feels.
MARTIN: Our pop culture critic here at NPR Linda Holmes said this about the film. Quote, "it felt like a salute to how toxic masculinity makes boys feel included, which is true," she writes, "but not sweet, as Hill seems to find it." How do you respond to that?
HILL: I just disagree. I found that it was connective tissue, which is unfortunate. I still think these people were there for each other, even though they had a lot of behavior I don't think is cool. The point of the movie is that nothing's black or white. I'm not a moralist. I'm not here to, like, tell an audience how they should feel. I think the way they speak about women and gay people is really a messed-up way to go about that. And then at the end of the film, they still are there for one another. So I don't think anyone is purely good or purely bad. I hope to create complex characters that constantly are challenging what you think of them.
MARTIN: Can I ask you about the casting? Because there's not a lot of names that people would perhaps recognize. I mean, the acting is pretty phenomenal, especially the star of the film and the guys who play the people in his boarding tribe.
HILL: (Laughter). That's really nice. I mean, the singular most moving experience in my life was casting first-time or non-actors. And they became these people and became actors and artists. One of the kids, Owen, the kid with the long, curly hair, who's very, like, light and fun and funny, at lunch, I was - you know, all the kids would joke around, talk trash and stuff. And I saw he looked really pensive, and that was abnormal. And you feel kind of big brotherly or protective over them. So I was concerned. And then I looked down, and he had his, like, rumpled-up script under the table, and he was rehearsing his lines during lunch.
HILL: You know? And this is a kid who had never thought about acting before.
MARTIN: Which is so funny, right? Because the guys, the characters they're playing, are struggling to be perceived like they don't care about anything. It's not cool to care.
HILL: In the '90s, especially, it was the lamest thing ever to say that you cared or tried. At least, in the culture I grew up in.
HILL: And what I love about spending time with these kids now is that they are motivated. And these kids give such naturalistic performances. I am just so proud of them. It's very moving.
MARTIN: You've got the directing bug now?
HILL: You know, my whole dream my whole life was to be a writer-director. I fell into this 15-year acting career where I got to learn from a lot of my heroes. And it's something I have wanted to do and would have done sooner. It's just that you only get one chance to make your first film, and I really wanted to wait till it was something that really meant something to me. I love this film. I stand by it, and I hope to just keep making things that I care about. That would be a great life. I should be so lucky.
MARTIN: The film is called "Mid90s." Jonah Hill is the director. Thanks so much for talking with us.
HILL: Yeah. It was a pleasure. Thanks for having me.
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