What kind of a name for a movie is that? The Wackness? Sounds like something a thug-wannabe kid from mid-1990’s New York would say, “Yo dude, that is the wackness.” Oddly enough, that is the part of the premise of this film, which was written and directed by Jonathan Levine. It is the third film that I have seen thus far at the ’08 Sundance Film Festival, and it could stand the test of the remaining 10 days and end up being the best film that I will see throughout the entire festival — it is just that good.
The Wackness tells the story of Luke Shapiro (Josh Peck), a recent high school graduate in 1994 New York City who spends most of his time ignoring his constantly fueding parents, being a social outcast and selling weed to everyone in sight, including his own shrink Dr. Squires (Sir Ben Kingsley). The story centers around the relationship between Josh and Dr. Squires, both in the midst of life crisis. Josh seeks to fight off depression, solve the problems of his parents and get laid all before he heads off for college in the fall. Dr. Squires’ battle is with maturity, as well as the failing marriage he goes home to every night after days of trading therapy for weed.
As Luke falls for one of his classmates, who also happens to be Squires’ stepdaughter Stephanie (Olivia Thirlby), the summer begins to heat up and his friendship with his doctor (and best client) grows. It is that friendship that allows both men to make their passages into new stages of the lives, all while learning to deal with pain, making it a part of them rather than letting it consume them.
It is a film that reminds me of my favorite film of 2007, Juno, which may have some bearing on why I am willing to call The Wackness a splendid film. Writer/Director Jonathan Levine certainly has a keen eye for three things: He is very in tune with what was cool back in 1994, from Mayor Giuliani’s crackdown on the city to the rise of the Notorious BIG to the old school NES, it all fits perfectly into the world both inside and outside of Josh’s mind. He also has a knack for smart dialogue, something that has allowed other writers like Diablo Cody to rise to stardom in recent years. The script delivers the characters all as people with deep problems (mostly drug related), but also allows them to be endearing, so that we will root for them no matter how many joints they smoke.
And finally, Levine hits the head right on the nail with an absolutely brilliant cast. In fact, I would like to break from this review and have you do an exercise. Grab a pen and some paper and write this down: Josh Peck. This kid is going to be a star. He absolutely lights up the screen, giving us a character that is so dynamic that we are able to look past his drug dealings and his perversions, and root for him to come out a better person in the end. Olivia Thirlby also delivers a break-out performance. You may remember her as Ellen Page’s friend in Juno. In Wackness, she raises her game and takes on a leading role seemingly with ease. The best thing about her is that she is completely believable. She isn’t some polished, silicon beauty who would never bat an eye at our man Luke, but rather a real, sexy girl who is wise to the world, yet not as grown up as she thinks.
But while it was the two young stars that really should have the spotlight in this film, as they were both fantastic, Sir Ben Kingsley doesn’t fail to boldly go where we have never seen him go before. His Dr. Squires is a hipster, a mal-adjusted man who always has the prescription for others, but never for himself. At times he provides all of the humor, as he takes on some pretty ridiculous situations (including, but not limited to making out with Mary Kate Olsen). The selling point for me is all in his delivery, he is certainly a man who understands what is going on in the mind of his character.
And that is really what it all comes down to, isn’t it? Character. Just like Juno last year and Little Miss Sunshine the year before that, The Wackness gives us characters that we can fall head-over-heals for, no matter how distasteful their habits. Then again, that is where I think this film will find its greatest weakness. There is plenty of sex, drugs and rap music in the film to make a child of the 90s like myself laugh ’til the point of having chest pains and connect to each character, but we can’t expect every generation to get the message. Thankfully, there are a lot of people who grew up in the 1990’s, all of whom should see this film.
Directed by: Jonathan Levine
Principal Cast: Josh Peck, Olivia Thirlby, Ben Kingsley, Famke Janssen, Mary Kate Olsen, Method Man
Running Time: 110 minutes