Shrouded in the haze of a Manhattan summer circa 1994 and Giuliani's great push for a whitewashed New York, Jonathan Levine's very entertaining The Wackness takes the coming-of-age story and attempts to give it a little history. The cultural touchstones of the '90s are picked bare: Kurt Cobain's suicide, the release of Notorious B.I.G.'s Ready to Die, Aaron Spelling's 90210, the turntable as the new musical lynchpin, and the ever-present love of a good toke. But where most films of this nature seem to rely on a central premise (e.g. My brother is dating my high school teacher who I have a crush on! How will I deal?!), Levine's has a respectful restraint and an eye for mood that eschews normal coming-of-age structure.
In Central Park, Luke Shapiro (Josh Peck of Nickelodeon's Drake + Josh) pushes an Italian Ice cart filled with dime bags of herb, compliments of a Rastafarian dealer (a welcome cameo by Method Man) who introduces the young dealer to a mix tape of Biggie. It's not exactly clear how Shapiro begins to trade eighths of green for therapy sessions with Dr. Jeffrey Squires (the ever-reliable Ben Kingsley) but from the moment the relationship begins, it's clear the two were made for each other. That isn't to say that friendship is the only thing that Shapiro finds alluring about the good doctor: The teen entrepreneur has a major jones for Squires' stepdaughter Stephanie (Olivia Thirlby in a bravura performance).
The Wackness won the Audience Award at this year's Sundance Film Festival, an unsurprising accolade considering its pedigree. A star from Nickelodeon, the goofy sidekick from Jason Reitman's Juno, the best illegal cash crop known to man, and a preference for jams from the Golden Age of hip-hop: The Wackness has all the right moves for a story that has already been filmed approximately 30 thousand times. But The Wackness is not dependent on artistry either: From its cast to its linear narrative to its virginity jokes, this is an audience film through-and-through.
As Dr. Squires seeks sanctuary from his frigid wife (Famke Janssen) with his new friend and a groovy, Phish-lovin' neo-hippie (Mary Kate Olsen), Shapiro romances Steph with lessons in drug-dealing, bottles of Crazy Horse and a mixtape of jams by The Pharcyde and De La Soul. She repays him with a weekend at her family's beach house in Fire Island, where she deflowers late-bloomer Luke after a few belts of whiskey. Steph explains her relationship with Shapiro eloquently: "I'm all about the dopeness but you're all about the wackness." A consummate modern girl, the doc's daughter wants to have fun, and the fact that a few hearts might get broken is not entirely her concern. Mr. Levine might be telling Luke's story, but he has a dedication to Steph that cannot be ignored.
Levine is very aware of his time, but being a teenager in love sucks no matter what year it is. What Levine gets across better than anything is the juxtaposition between how seriously we take something as fickle as love at that age and the utter goofiness of the world where we are told to propagate it. In this sense, I suspect many a teenage boy will see Luke and notice a kindred spirit. But like any decent stoner, The Wackness only has a passing interest in heartbreak and romance. Feeling good and snack food are much higher on the to-do list.
Now that's wack.