Graffiti still decorated New York’s subways and bus stops. You and your friends exchanged mix tapes (of course). And there were these things called pay phones. That’s right, it was 1994.
Writer/director Jonathan Levine’s The Wackness, the Audience Award winner at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, is certainly a crowd-pleaser – especially if, during that all important year, you were a dude between the ages 14 and 18 living in New York, filled with angst and the heady effects of THC. These film-goers can take an hour and a half to revel in the memories of their youth while being comforted by the distance of more than a decade of maturity. For the rest of us, The Wackness offers a well-acted, slightly unusual coming-of-age tale, backed by some of hip-hop’s most original beats.
So, here’s the story. Perpetual loner and pot dealer Luke Shapiro (Josh Peck) has just graduated from high school, but unlike his peers, he just can’t seem to enjoy his last summer of freedom. As he explains, “Tomorrow I go to my safety school, and then I get older, and then I die.” Yeah, he’s not the most optimistic kid, but he has reason to be a downer: his parents’ incessant bickering could drive even the sanest kid out of his mind. As the summer wears on, Luke finds solace in Dr. Jeffrey Squires (Sir Ben Kingsley), a self-medicating, stoner shrink with whom Luke trades weed for talk-time. Hardly a voice of reasoned lucidity, Squires urges Luke to “get laid,” a prescription that would satisfy both patient and doctor. Luke’s object of affection just happens to be Squires’ stepdaughter, Stephanie (Olivia Thirlby). Like Sandy and Danny, Luke and Stephanie’s love blossoms under the summer sun, only to wilt at the first sign of fall – and the return of the cool kids’ scrutinizing eyes. All the while, Luke keeps pushing his product and exploring the city with Squires, each trying to cure their malaise with drugs, rebellion, and dope tunes. In the end, it’s surrender that solves their respective problems: Luke can’t fast-forward to adulthood and Squires can’t rewind. They can only live in 1994.
The Wackness isn’t quite what the trailers make it out to be. If you’re looking for a kickass celebration of weed, New York, and adolescence, you’re seeing the wrong film. Levine steps right up to the edge of melodrama, indulging Luke’s teenage woes and Squires’ mid-life boredom. Luckily, the script is held back with a safety cord of dry wit. When Squires attempts suicide á la The Awakening, Luke treads through the ocean, calling after him with the doc’s own advice to “embrace the pain,” not to look for the “quick fix.” In the next shot, Luke finds Squires, alive, on the beach. Squires thanks Luke for his sensitivity with a taunt: “You know, that was really fuckin’ cheesy what you said back there.” Moments of brash but playful confrontation remind us that, although these two sad-sacks have some real problems (after all, Squires’ marriage is pitiful and Luke’s parents can’t pay their rent), they also like to wallow in their sorrow. Without their sense of humor, Luke and Squires would simply be pathetic.
Levine also balances realism with small doses of fantasy, but he could be more liberal in his application. In the very first moments of the film, Luke sits on the subway, puts on his headphones, and Nas’ “The World is Yours” literally transports him into another realm. The other passengers disappear and pseudo-Fly Girls prance through the subway car. Later, after Luke and Stephanie’s first kiss, we see him from a bird’s eye view, leaving her building. Dancing with glee, each step lights up a sidewalk square, a tribute to Michael Jackson’s “Billy Jean” video if I ever saw one. But, disappointingly, Levine only dabbles in whimsy. These are the imaginative details that, if used more frequently, would make The Wackness a truly original film.
Petra Korner’s overexposed cinematography captures the haze of high noon and high times, and solid acting bolsters Levine’s slightly anemic script and direction. Kingsley is odd and aloof, but that works for a character whose medicine cabinet is filled with a phalanx of anti-depressants. Thirlby somehow imbues Stephanie, Luke’s chain-smoking, sexually confident, capricious girlfriend, with a tinge of humanity.
But the most surprising performance comes from Peck, who deftly conveys both the anxiety of youth and Luke’s preternatural maturity. Lingo like “mad cool” rolls easily out of his perpetually agape mouth. And though Peck is Caucasian, his performance doesn’t read as inauthentic, co-opted, or “racially insensitive.” Rather, he plays Luke as an outcast, city-kid who finds the outlet for his hormonally-driven agitation in the lyricism and emotion of hip-hop. He doesn’t claim to own the music or the movement; it just fits his situation.
And what a soundtrack it is. In addition to Nas, Levine uses Wu-tang, Raekwon, The Notorious B.I.G., and A Tribe Called Quest (among others) sparingly, but in this case, his hesitancy works. The music comes in only at the most emotionally charged moments, giving voice to Luke and Squires’ inner thoughts. The Wackness sets out to translate the best of hip-hop, with its blend of earnest content and rollicking style, onto the screen. Unlike the music, the film is not a genre-changing breakthrough or a portal to a feeling of place and time, but it’s certainly good enough for some summer play.