It's the summer of 1994, and the streets of New York are pulsing with hip-hop. Set against this backdrop, a lonely teenager named Luke Shapiro spends his last summer before university selling marijuana throughout New York City, trading it with his unorthodox psychotherapist for treatment, while having a crush on his stepdaughter.
A group of high-schoolers invite Mandy Lane, a good girl who became quite hot over the summer, to a weekend party on a secluded ranch. While the festivities rage on, the number of revelers begins to drop quite mysteriously.
Friendship, love, and coming of age in New York City, summer of 1994. Luke Shapiro has just graduated from high school, sells marijuana, and trades pot for therapy from a psychologist, Dr. Jeffrey Squires. Luke is attracted to a classmate, Stephanie, who's out of his league and Squires' step-daughter. By July, he's hanging out with Stephanie, taking her on his rounds selling pot out of an ice-cream pushcart. Then things take a turn. In the background, Squires and his wife as well as Luke's parents are having their troubles. Written by
The coming-of-age genre has been a welcome staple in cinema from the classic monolith "Rebel Without A Cause" to the recent uber-smash "Juno", whose young protagonists are fraught with having old souls while trying to make a place in the world, despite pressure and apathy from their peers and parents.
One newcomer is high school grad Luke Shapiro, played with urban wisdom and smooth shyness by NYC native Josh Peck, in Jonathan Levine's funky yet poignant film, "The Wackness". In New York City, during the summer of 1994, then-mayor Rudolph Giuliani (before his shameless, self-adoration after the Sept 11 attacks; the WTC towers make a haunting CGI appearance here) waged a no-nonsense war against quality of life crimes so tourists wouldn't gag while seeing homelessness, public inebriation, prostitution or drug trafficking. Phoniness: a religion of the moron.
His parents strapped for cash (due to his dad's badly thought-out, "get rich quick" schemes), Shapiro slyly flips the bird at the system by selling marijuana out of a beaten up ice cream cart, with a boom box (that's an over-sized radio/cassette player to you tadpoles) attached to it, playing the likes of rap acts like A Tribe Called Quest, Biggie Smalls and DJ Jazzy Jeff and Will "The Fresh Prince" Smith. Great idea, but since when did drug dealers, aside from Frank Lucas from "American Gangster", ever had great ideas? Ergo, Luke's a lone wolf, ever since school. A subtle, near-silent applause is given when he gets his diploma. He sits over an awning, looking down at the partiers at a post-graduation soiree he wasn't invited to, but asked to supply the weed. If you know how he feels, don't be ashamed to cry. I know I did.
Fortunately, Luke's best client is his shrink, Jeff Squires (a madcap, mercurial Sir Ben Kingsley, who should get Oscar nominated for Best Supporting Actor), who gives him dubious advice ("Get laid") while taking a quarter of grass as payment. However, Squires doesn't take well to Luke's infatuation with his step-daughter, the high class Stephanie ("Juno's" Olivia Thirlby, also a NYC native). Sometimes, first loves aren't the best ones.
If you think the film's about a Jewish kid immersing himself in hip-hop culture, you're so wrong. An audience award winner at both the Sundance and Los Angeles film festivals, "The Wackness", an earnest attempt to adapt "Catcher in the Rye" by J.D. Salinger, is the first coming of age piece that reminiscently focuses on the 1990s, making refs to "Beverly Hills 90210", the late rocker Kurt Cobain, the pulsating (and better) rap music and Giuliani's near-fascistic and racist mayoral reign (like me, a NYC resident, Squires sees it as a basic and pathetic hiding of the symptoms of society's ills). Graffiti font is made as opening credits, respected by Levine, whose script is alive (also should get nominated) and direction is competent cool and quick in a drug-like haze.
His actors are reliable, like Mary-Kate Olsen as a squirrel-brain, hippie chick, rapper Method Man as Luke's Caribbean-accented boss, Famke Janseen (the X-Men trilogy) as Squires's frigid trophy wife and David Wohl and Talia Balsam as Luke's bickering parents. Even Jane Adams is pretty cool as a one-hit musician-cum-stoner. Personally, the film's narrative is an attractive, alternative version of my own of trial by fire.
That comes down to Peck, a grad from the tween sitcom "Drake and Josh", who perfectly echoes Robert DeNiro and John Cusack from their lead roles in "Taxi Driver" (Mr. Levine was the assistant of the film's writer Paul Schrader) and "Say Anything". Sure, Luke's cool beyond cool, but he's an old man in a young man's body, a mirror image to Kingsley's Squires, who has trouble in his marriage. Thirbly, as Stephanie, nicely reps fear behind careless hedonism: When Luke's honest about his feelings for her, during a rendezvous on Fire Island, she finds it holographic, not noticing she's talking about herself while being with "God's lonely boy."
With its' drug use, urban vibe and stark individualism, I don't know if "The Wackness" will be 2008's "Juno" (IT COULD!!!), but I do know it's a honest film.
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