(29/08/08) – Luke Shapiro has just graduated from high school. Although he’s the class dealer, he doesn’t have any friends, and the huge crush he has on Stephanie Squires is so far unrequited. But Stephanie likes him a little, or she wouldn’t have introduced him to her stepfather; Dr Jeffrey Squires is a shrink, and is willing to trade sessions for weed. So Luke goes and sits in the wood-panelled office and talks.
It’s 1994 and he is still a virgin, to his defensive embarrassment; he’s into alternative hip-hop and dresses like a skater. His parents fight a lot, he won’t upgrade to CDs, and makes really good mix tapes with all his cassettes. He’s going off to college, and everything is going to change.
Jonathan Levine’s debut feature won the audience award at last year’s Sundance festival and you can see why – it’s a funny, spaced-out, charming story of a boy’s coming-of-age and a man’s mid-life crisis. Josh Peck as Luke is one of the sweetest performances in recent memory; despite his less-than-savoury job at heart he’s a good kid.
He’s confused, horny, miserable about being so confused and horny, and utterly lovestruck by the jaded Stephanie (Olivia Thirlby). He’s also in awe of Dr. Squires (Ben Kingsley), a former deadhead who’s gotten but not wiser – he really believes the drinking age in New York is still 18. His marriage to Stephanie’s mother Kristin (Famke Janssen) is falling apart; Janssen conveys the tension in their marriage just in how she smokes her cigarette. Squires is also miserable, confused, horny, and knows he’s old enough to know better. And yet Squires can’t keep himself to himself; the sessions with Josh are as much therapy for himself as well.
But what The Wackness needed was to move past its nostalgia for old-school hip-hop – we’d all forgotten Biz Markie’s "Just a Friend" and A Tribe Called Quest is always a pleasure – to delve into Luke and Squires’s crises. A Knight of the British Empire doing bong hits is just a cheap way of getting publicity, although I was hugely struck by Kingsley’s resemblence, in a fedora, to Huey from the Fun Lovin’Criminals. And the same character in Little Miss Sunshine won Alan Arkin his Oscar, so I suppose Kingsley isn’t complaining.
Petra Korner’s cinematography gives the film a faded, gold-ish look, like an old photograph; perhaps the intent was to create nostalgia but instead it looks cheaply done. Fortunately Peck’s diamond acting pulls the film above its murky setting. It takes some courage to be this vulnerable on screen, and Peck is uncommonly good at it.
Regrettably, the nuanced attention given the men is not matched for the women in Levine’s script. The silly party girl (Mary-Kate Olsen) who drops both Phish and "Beverly Hills 90210" references into the same sentence was the weakest note of the whole film. Janssen does a great deal with very little, and Thirlby’s confident sexuality makes it clear why all the boys would be in love with her. But they aren’t the fully rounded individuals the boys get to be. It’s also a shame there was almost no room for Luke’s family. The scene at dinner in his grandparents’ house says more about family than some entire films. It does stretch credulity that his parents are in the dark about his career, not even when he tells his dad he has $26,000 in cash in his room. Finally, it’s still embarrassing to hear these well-off white kids use so much ‘urban’ slang – this got you laughed out of class where I grew up, not that some kids didn’t try.
Apparently Peck had his own TV show on Nickelodeon a few years ago; he should be able to put his childish roles behind him now. The discovery of his appeal and talent makes The Wackness a little treasure.
The Wackness is released in the UK today, 29/08 and then in France on 29/9.