If it’s surprising to hear that Jonah Hill has ambitions to write and direct, it’s really only mildly so. We certainly get how willing he is to step outside of his perceived comfort zone of broad comedies and quirky-husky roles. We caught his Oscar-nominated turn in “Moneyball” (2011). Ditto for “The Wolf of Wall Street” (2013). His current Netflix series, “Maniac” — and those glam promo images! — feels like something slightly different, too.
Yet Hill’s debut behind the camera on the coming-of-age dramedy “Mid90s” manages to go against expectations regardless. Gleaning the premise of a diffident teen finding his place with the gang at an LA skate shop, we of course thought of “Superbad” and Hill’s winningly gawky breakout in the 2007 multiplex fave. But this assured film’s intriguingly funky urban-naturalistic vibe is something else altogether. Same for its alternately gritty, gauzily dreamlike 16mm visual aesthetic. It’s as if Hill took his familiar sly humor and sneaked it into a segment from Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood.”
Chameleonic standout Sunny Suljic (“The House With a Clock in Its Walls”) plays Stevie, an uncommonly observant 13-year-old whose quiet curiosity is tinged with yearning. There has to be something more than his home life, with his abusive older brother (Lucas Hedges, tweaking his “Manchester by the Sea” freefall act) and his caring but preoccupied single mom (underutilized Katherine Waterston). How bad is it? Picture the kid getting slammed into the wall of his house in an opening shot so jarringly abrupt you’ll wonder if maybe the theater projectionist skipped a reel.
Kicking around the neighborhood, Stevie finds his imagination captured by a collection of skate-or-die dudes who’ve made their supply store a regular hangout, filling their off-board downtime with rude talk, police dodging, and bonding. There’s welcoming, effortlessly cool Ray (Na-Kel Smith); Olan Prenatt’s hard-partying second-in-command, whose unprintably profane moniker feels like Hill pranking reviewers; and chippy Ruben (Gio Galicia) and dim Fourth Grade (Ryder McLaughlin, “Ballers”), both of them hard-luck cases. The entire group feels as strikingly, credibly raw as Suljic, despite — or thanks to — their bare-bones filmographies.
For all of the group’s suspect influence on the “little man” — pass the 40 and the hook-up tips, yo! — they’re also a found family that’s shown to care in very real, affecting ways. At just over 80 minutes, the movie could do with a few more scenes to help lay out Stevie’s spiral in fuller, even more convincing fashion. Still — a debut that leaves us this hungry for more? Hill will take it, no doubt.
★ ★ ★
Written and directed by Jonah Hill. Starring Sunny Suljic, Na-kel Smith, Olan Prenatt, Lucas Hedges, Katherine Waterston. At Boston theaters, Kendall Square, Coolidge Corner, suburbs. 84 minutes. R (pervasive language, sexual content, drug and alcohol use, some violent behavior/disturbing images — all involving minors)