Pot, hip hop and coming of age in the '90s fuel this surprisingly effective and bittersweet Sundance winner.
The Wackness, winner of Sundance Film Festival's Audience Award, compares favorably with some of the best teen angst movies of the past. It could have been just another stoner slack-fest but instead finds much to say and should resonate with not only those who also came of age in the '90s but anyone who ever crossed that frightening threshold. Set in the summer of 1994, when N.A.S, Notorious B.I.G. and Outkast ruled the airwaves, Luke Shapiro (Josh Peck) is spending his last summer peddling marijuana out of an ice cart and trading it for free therapy sessions with his aging pot-smoking psychiatrist Dr. Squires (Ben Kingsley), who seems to be trying desperately to hang onto his own youth. Although the advice ("you need to get laid") he hands out probably wouldn't pass muster in most medical circles, the two strike up an unusual relationship. Luke takes his first tentative steps into manhood, courtesy of his shrink's stepdaughter Stephanie (Olivia Thirlby), while Squires must deal with a fading marriage to his much-younger wife (Famke Janssen).
Peck--best known for Nickelodeon's bubblegum sitcom Drake and Josh--exhibits great promise with his low-key, simple performance as a messed-up, pot-dealing teenager on the verge of adulthood. He could have played this as a straight stoner but instead is remarkably three dimensional, offering a portrait of a young man in transition. He's a guy whose problems with his parents, friends and girls are just the tip of the iceberg in his own coming-of-age drama. As the other half of this very odd couple, Kingsley seems to be relishing his role as an aging hippie therapist whose lifelong obsession with pot has clearly rattled his brain. Squires own confusion leads him to a hilarious "romantic" encounter with a dreadlocked little tramp, played amusingly by Mary-Kate Olsen, who is probably STILL talking about her make-out scene with the Oscar-winning actor. Also along for Luke's quirky ride into manhood is Thirlby, who showed great promise in Juno and confirms it here as a very confident young woman, who deflowers the awkward Luke in a wonderfully understated bedroom scene. Janssen has little to do but look lovely, while Talia Balsam and David Wohl are in for some brief moments as Luke's difficult parents. And look for nice bits from Jane Adams as a new wave keyboard player, Disturbia's Aaron Yoo and Method Man as Luke's supplier.
It's probably no coincidence young writer/director Jonathan Levine graduated from high school in 1994--the same year he has set for The Wackness. Clearly, he knows the era and particularly the music, which plays such a key role in setting the mood of this picture. Levine has passion for the hip hop sounds of the era and has effortlessly incorporated them directly into his storyline. Where The Wackness really departs from your average slacker epic, however, is in its seriousness of tone. At its core, the film is not unlike classic teen movies such as Risky Business and Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Levine creates flawed, almost tragic figures we can identify with in one way or another. That's what holds this somewhat meandering tale together so well. We come to like these characters and wish them well as their lives are hovering at a crossroads. Levine's filmmaking style is slightly awkward and the movie is unattractively lit, but with The Wackness, Levine captures a moment in time with great skill and heart.
Hollywood.com rated this film 3 stars.