Reviewed by

Christopher Armstead

Josh Peck, the star of this film ‘The Wackness’ – more on the title later – is also one of the stars of the Nickelodeon Channel TV show ‘Drake and Josh’. My young son as it turns out is a big fan of that show and when the screening for ‘The Wackness’ shows up he asks me if he can tagalong to see what I’m guessing he’s assuming is some kind of extended ‘Drake and Josh’ movie. I, being the semi-responsible parent, notice the R-rating of this film and inform the boy that he’s going to have to miss this one. And it was just as well because I don’t think the kid could have adequately processed watching the character he knows as Josh Nichols slinging dope, cursing his parents, smoking weed, snorting cocaine, cursing his grandparents, masturbating to a yearbook picture, having unprotected pre-marital sex, contemplating suicide and getting thrown in jail. Among other things. We’re not even going talk about what Mary-Kate Olsen was doing in a phone booth with Gandhi. More importantly I don’t if I’m quite ready to breakdown all these things to the twelve year old just yet. So instead we’ll just go see ‘The Dark Knight’ and watch the Joker shoot, kill, maim, terrorize and torture while garnering a rather soft PG-13 rating. Responsible parenting in action!

The year is 1994 and we’re looking in on the life on one Luke Shapiro (Peck). It’s his senior year and like most kids before him and most kids after him, he is confused. He’s not that unpopular in school since he seems to be the main supplier to most of Manhattan’s weed smoking community, but he’s not that popular either since he’s largely considered a burnout by his classmates. Things aren’t much better at home as his parents are struggling financially and clawing at each other because of their financial struggles. To help ease his pain, as Shapiro enters his first summer as a high school graduate, he often sees his shrink Jeffrey Squires (Sir Ben Kingsley) even though he tells the good doctor almost nothing. Dr. Squires isn’t too terribly concerned since Shapiro does pay for his sessions in dime and quarter bags and where I come from we call that a win-win.

Despite his problems Shapiro is still a hormone enraged boy and the object of his affection is Dr. Squires pretty step-daughter Stephanie (Olivia Thirlby) who Shapiro has been providing contraband for quite a while now. Unlike most of their peers, Stephanie seems to genuinely like Shapiro and since its summer and all the cool kids are off doing wealthy upper Manhattan type stuff, these two start hanging out, talking about life, drinking, smoking weed and having sex. Now Dr. Squires, who has struck up a peculiar friendship with Shapiro that extends beyond the acquisition of pot, has tried to warn the boy about falling for Stephanie, informing him that the much more experienced girl will only break his heart, but the heart only knows what it knows and our hero is head over heals. Unfortunately summer is coming to an end, Dr. Squires marriage to Stephanie’s mom (Famke Jannsen) is coming to end, Shapiro’s parents problems are coming to a head and Shapiro is beginning to understand his relationship with Stephanie was more in line with one of them being in love while the other was trying to pass the time. Life must go on.

About the title, the character of Stephanie accuses Shapiro of always looking at the ‘Wackness’ where she sees the ‘Dopeness’. I must admit I’ve never heard either of those words used in that particular conjugation before. I must also admit that I’ve found urban slang spilling out of the mouths of well to do white kids also a bit peculiar, I mean ‘I’ve got mad love for you shorty’ just doesn’t sound right to me coming out of certain peoples mouths, but I’m going to assume that director Jonathan Levine’s age probably corresponds to this time period so he must know how his people communicate and as such it is all good. As ‘The Wackness’ began I had a hard time getting involved in its narrative largely because the character of Luke Shapiro was fairly unsympathetic. The boy is a drug dealer, he’s rude to his parents, he has no respect and I’ve never found watching characters like these even remotely appealing. To Josh Peck’s benefit, as the movie wore on the young actor did a very effective job in allowing the audience to get to know him more and to understand his character and what he’s dealing with. His behavior was never passed off as ‘acceptable’ or ‘cool’, he was just a kid trying to get by the best way he could in the only way that he knew how. The same can be said for Olivia Thirlby who complemented Peck’s performance by presenting a character who was his opposite in that she was confident where he’s skittish, positive where he’s negative, but ultimately confused where he is able to find clarity. But then I guess that’s what it’s like when one embraces ‘the dopeness’. It’s also good to Sir Ben Kingsley in a film that reminds us what a fabulous actor he is as opposed to ‘Bloodraynes’ and ‘Sound of Thunders’ that he shows up in occasionally that only remind us that he has bills to pay like the rest of us.

Similar to the last film of Jonathan Levine’s that I recently saw ‘All the Boys love Mandy Lane’, there is nothing particularly unique about the narrative as ‘The Wackness’ is a typical coming of age tale just as ‘Mandy Lane’ was a typical slasher flick, but Levine appears to have the innate ability to apply subtle tweaks his stories which makes them just different enough to set them apart. He did it for ‘Mandy Lane’ and he does it here with his smart, atypical characterizations, clever dialog and the somewhat unique situations that he managed to place his characters in from time to time. Some of the film was derivative, but enough of it was unique to make it interesting. And if you spent anytime being young in the mid 90’s, the music will almost bring a tear to your eye, that is if you liked hip-hop. I could give less than a damn about hip-hop about now, but back then… I embraced ‘the dopeness’.

‘The Wackness’ is one of the better coming of age style stories in recent memory mostly set apart by the performances of the films lead actors. The story will feel familiar to most of us, but it is just different enough to keep it interesting and hearing L.L.’s desire to have an ‘Around the Way Girl’ doesn’t hurt it none either.

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