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.
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
Kingsley and Peck craft a new classic coming-of-age tale
"The Wackness," director Jonathan Levine's eagerly-awaited followup feature to "All the Boys Love Mandy Lane," premiered at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival and was immediately acquired by Sony Pictures Classics. I wasn't able to catch it at the time. Fortunately, "The Wackness" was presented in a special midnight screening not on the official SXSW Film Festival schedule. It was a special treat and quite an unexpected surprise.
"The Wackness" is basically a two-man show, with Ben Kingsley and Josh Peck as psychiatrist Dr. Squires and his patient Luke Shapiro. The twist? One deals drugs and the other takes them. But guess who buys and who sells? And did I mention that Luke not only doles out weed to his doctor but also dates his daughter? Ahh yes...the plot thickens. Yet Squires and Shapiro forge an unlikely friendship not unlike two college buddies -- the boy is just a bit too mature for his age and the man a bit too immature, and they meet at about the same intellectual level.
Penned by director Levine, it's a complex storyline but "The Wackness" is ultimately a character-driven piece. Kingsley's performance is a tour de farce in a daring and risky role unlike anything we've seen -- this ain't your father's Gandhi. Josh Peck, best known as television's Josh of "Josh & Drake" and to indie lovers as George, the tormented victim in "Mean Creek," is the biggest surprise here. He carries this film on his shoulders like a veteran. Olivia Thirlby ("Snow Angels," "Juno") is delightful as the object of Luke's affection.
Production values belie the film's modest budget, especially given the cost of a location period piece -- "The Wackness" is set in New York City 1994. Music of the era naturally provides the backdrop for the duo's drug-dealing days and party nights. Drugs (selling and taking) seem to be ubiquitous in the films I've seen here at SXSW and "The Wackness'" overindulgence can be hard to watch at times. But what could have strayed into a silly variation on "Dazed & Confused" (or the recent "Charlie Bartlett") is, instead, a touching coming-of-age story as relevant today as ever. The fact that the film remains grounded in semi-reality is a tribute to the talents of Kingsley and Peck in the hands of director Jonathan Levine. This director is a force to be reckoned with now that he has "All the Boys Love Mandy Lane" and "The Wackness" under his belt.
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