Sunday, July 13, 2008

The Wackness: a film by Jonathan Levine

"The Wackness," an independent film written and directed by Jonathan Levine, is an appealingly honest and simple film set in New York City in the summer of 1994, which tells the story of recent high school grad Luke Shapiro's (Josh Peck) transition from child to man. Luke is a dopey pot dealer with a drawling hip-hop affectation characteristic of the wealthy white city kids I knew at NYU around that time (it seemed like every Jewish kid on the Upper East Side fancied himself a Beastie Boy that year). He's a shy and thoughtful boy who hides behind a wall of nonchalance and drugs.

Luke's home life is falling apart, while his social life is nonexistent. His customers include a spacey hippie girl (Mary Kate Olsen, adequate in a tiny role that has garnered huge attention for the film), an agoraphobic former pop star (Jane Adams), and his psychiatrist, Dr. Jeffrey Squires (Sir Ben Kingsley). Squires trades Luke pot for therapy, although it's often hard to tell which is the doctor/adult and which the patient/child. Bereft of suitable role models, Luke reluctantly latches onto the drug-addicted, megalomaniacal and miserable Squires. At the same time, he begins to make inroads in his pursuit of Squires' stepdaughter, Stephanie (Olivia Thirlby), a popular, jaded classmate whose affection for Luke may or may not be genuine.

Squires, whose marriage to Stephanie's mother (Famke Janssen) is slowly dying, indulges in all manner of immature behavior with Luke, including a hook-up with Union (Olsen) in a phone booth that matters little to the story but has set the Internet abuzz. Stephanie, who has inherited her mother's studied detachment, seems to drop the facade around Luke - but keeps it in reserve with the knowledge that her wealthy clique will return at summer's end, and with it her class consciousness. Although Luke lives in the same neighborhood and attends the same school, his position as an outcast is inextricably tied to his economic need. Luke sells pot to pay for college, while his rich peers rip him off and his father (David Wohl) teeters on the brink of losing everything they have. He and Squires are the only people in their world who do any work, however half-assed and wasted, and this as much as their shared desperation is what bonds them.

The film's setting in 1994, with requisite period soundtrack by A Tribe Called Quest, Notorious B.I.G., KRS-One, Biz Markie and more, is intended to trigger nostalgia in viewers like myself who were Luke's age then. It does, but the film could as easily be set in the present day. It's really an indie genre film, blending elements of Harold and Maude, Say Anything, Igby Goes Down and The Royal Tenenbaums.

Josh Peck gives a solid performance, able to express enough intelligence and emotional nuance behind Luke's mask of carelessness to keep Kingsley from running away with the film. Kingsley seems to be having a terrific time with Squires, whom he makes both ridiculous and brilliantly compelling. Janssen, usually a strong actress, does a lot with a minor role, while Thirlby puts herself firmly in the running to be the next Scarlett Johansson. Method Man does his best Buju Banton as Percy, Luke's supplier.

"The Wackness" is about living through disappointment and loss, and as such it's a difficult film for a summer release. Most people would prefer to watch stories of heroism and redemption, peppered by explosions, at this time of year. Nonetheless, it's a worthwhile film and it ends on a high note of sorts. The film is distributed by Sony Pictures Classics, and is in limited run in only 31 theaters, but though it's unlikely to be another "Juno"-level hit*, I hope it does well enough that more films of this type can get national releases.

*Addendum: I retract my earlier prediction that this movie will not be a "Juno"-level hit after having seen two consecutive ads for it within one half-hour last night. It looks as though Sony Pictures Classics is following the "Juno" model after all - $100 million in advertising for a $10 million picture. So far "The Wackness" has grossed less than $500,000, but it remains to be seen whether Sony can buy a hit like Fox Searchlight did last year.

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