Ah, the summer of 94. I was a precocious ten years old, living in suburban Long Island and making that all too important transition from elementary school to middle school. In a lot of ways, that is the summer I became a teen. I got my first CD (Dr. Dre’s THE CHRONIC), had my first dalliance with the opposite sex; It was a formative time for me. Of course, if a film were to be made about my “coming of age” it would be at around seventeen or so, but that would be in 2001 and that was like seven years ago; too soon for nostalgia. And though 1994 was a big year for me, I cannot tell my story set against its backdrop. Luckily, writer director Jonathan Levine can. Levine graduated high school in that fateful summer and fortunately for us, he has decided to tell his tale (or a lot of it) in a fresh, smart and extremely funny new film, THE WACKNESS.
Set in the three summer months of 1994, in the hot and familiar (to myself) streets in New York City, THE WACKNESS is the story of 16 year old Luke Shapiro (TV’s Josh Peck), a pot dealer and social misfit who strives to be popular and get the girl but winds up spending most of his time with a drug addicted psychologist played by Oscar winner Sir. Ben Kingsley. Though Lucas isn’t necessarily picked on, he is far from popular in school, most kids only associating with him due to his profession. Aptly put by the teen himself “I’m the most popular unpopular kid in school”. Couple all this popularity induced insecurity with a raging unfulfilled sex drive and a family life quickly collapsing around him, and you’ve got one pretty messed up kid. I say messed up not in the sense that anything is wrong with him, rather like most teens, Luke’s life is a seemingly random series of catastrophes and set backs, all of which he thinks he is helpless to avoid. His one friend, the madcap and clinically depressed Dr. Squires is almost In the same boat as Luke. Squire’s in a loveless and often tumultuous marriage, he is depressed and unsatisfied at work and he trades therapy sessions with sixteen year olds for marijuana. Class act. To make things even worse, the city they love and call their own is quickly morphing into a homogenized theme park of a town, thanks to Mayor Rudolph Guliani. Luke graduates high school unceremoniously and the summer seems to be shaping up to be just as miserable as all the others. Add in the fact that Luke’s parents fight all the time (and for good reason, Luke’s father loses his job and the family is in danger of being evicted). Stephanie, the girl he likes, who happens to be Dr. Squire’s stepdaughter (played excellently by relative newcomer Olivia Thirlby) is either unaware or unresponsive to Luke’s desires - rather, she seems to like Luke as a friend. Life couldn’t be worse for young Luke Shapiro.
And then one day, his various worlds seem to collide. With most of the school class out of the country on a trip (to which Luke was not invited), Stephanie and Luke spend a chance day together, selling pot in the parks of the Upper West Side. Sparks fly, obviously on Luke’s part and surprisingly on Stephanie’s, and Luke - for the first time in a long time - has a reason for life. As this affair is blossoming, Luke and Dr. Squires attempt to reinvigorate each other’s lives in other, more spiritual (yeah right) pursuits. What follows is one of the truest and funniest coming of age films I have seen in a long time.
“I’m pretty sure thats not ices in there…”
I don’t want to spoil things, as this is a film I feel people should really go out of their way to try and see. So as to not go into much more plot, I like to break my feelings about the film into a list style type deal. Y’all with me? All right, then let’s roll out.
THE PLOT: This movie may not affect everyone as it did me, or ring as true to people’s lives and memories as it did mine, but one can’t help feel a twang of happiness, regardless of age or background, at the pure saturation of the year 1994 in this film. The movie breathes that summer. The music, the sights around NYC, the language; this film is in many ways a time capsule of 1994, a seminal time in my own life and a generation of fellow film fans. Though the actual story is nothing groundbreaking, it is so real that it is hard to not be instantly drawn into it. Anyone will relate with a moment in this film, if not many of them. In its own way, this is a film to remind people of who they were, where they’ve come from and what they’ve learnt along the way. Yes, it runs a tad too long at 110 minutes and yes, some of the dialogue will not be accessible to those not familiar with the time period (I, on the other hand used to really talk like this) and yes, it does have the now infamous Ben Kingsley/Mary Kate Olsen make out session, but I really think THE WACKNESS is a standout piece, and one of the most realistic and funny independent films I have seen in a while.
THE VISUALS: This movie is gorgeous… And I don’t say that lightly. Cinematographer Petra Korner has created a palate for her first feature film that is both gritty and luscious at the same time. The streets of New York City are represented in their full, real life splendor. Nothing is cleaned up here for our sake. This is New York as seen through the haze of memories gone - things are a bit distorted, sometimes washed out, always dreamlike and always true to the city that I love. With a flair for the creative and sometimes shocking, Petra manages to remind the viewer of Darren Arronosfky’s masterpiece REQUIEM FOR A DREAM, and that is one of the highest honors I can bestow upon someone.
THE ACTING: Possibly the strongest suit this film has going for it. In particular, Josh Peck turns in a true star making performance in the lead role of Luke. For those unfamiliar, Peck can be seen as the costar of the wildly popular children’s television show JOSH AND DRAKE and a few years back stole the show in the fantastic indie film MEAN CREEK. In his first starring role, there was a real chance for a young actor to get lost amongst the high concepts of the piece and the more veteran cast, but Peck not only doesn’t falter, he is a breathe of fresh air. Not for one moment in the film did I feel like he was acting, rather Luke exists for the two hours he is on film. This is a real kid, or rather, we know a real kid very much like Luke. He is both a characterization and a accurate portrayal of a teenager lost to angst, and Josh Peck does an amazing job of keeping that element apparent and also prominent in every scene he inhabits. Truly a wonderful and memorable performance and what looks to be the start of a very promising career.
Sir Kingsley is no slouch either as he paints a zany and compelling Dr. Squires for the audience. Yes, sometimes he can veer a bit into the lunacy scale, but for the character he is playing it seems to fit, if not add to the overall performance. It’s a high compliment to the man that I hardly recognized him in the film, and once the movie gets rolling I almost forgot that it was an actor playing the role - instead, it felt like Dr. Squires had agreed to play himself. It is definitely an unconventional character, and due to that Sir Ben’s portrayal may irk some viewers, or come off as a caricature, but this isn’t the “real” world as we know it - It’s Levine’s memories seen through the idealistic future of time. Things don’t have to be 100 percent “True” to make this universe exude reality.
Olivia Thribly - who most of you will know as Juno’s best friend in, wait for it, JUNO - plays Stephanie, the goal (and occasional destroyer) of Luke’s affections, and she does a surprisingly mature and adept job of the role. I say surprising, not because I doubt her talent, rather at such a young age I am always surprised and impressed when an actor or actress can bring such a sense of depth and realism to a role. I know girls like Stephanie. You know girls like Stephanie. It is a great credit to Thirbly that one doesn’t wind up despising her character, but instead empathize and almost appreciate her instead, due in the most part to a combination of Thirlby’s grounded and eerily real life performance, and her obvious beauty and charm. She plays a very functional role in the growth of Luke, and her almost preternatural understanding of that is what makes the character intriguing and somehow tragic, rather then mean.
The rest of the cast is fleshed out with what is for the most part strong and mainly unknown (or at least unfamiliar) character actors. The few notable exceptions are Mary Kate Olsen playing a Phish tour dropout, Famke Janssen as Dr. Squire’s distant and troubled trophy wife and Method Man as Luke’s pot supplier, each of who turn in a solid if not unremarkable performance. Actually, Method Man was better then that, though only given a few scenes, I really enjoyed his whole Rasta character and thought it was nice to see him playing a role rather then himself, as he usually does.
THE MUSIC: Other then the acting, this is what THE WACKNESS has going for it. Rap may not be everyone’s cup of tea, and if you are an adamant anti-rap person, the following statement will not apply to you, but this film has one of the best soundtracks in recent years. It may be because I bought my first CD in 94, or that my first exposure to music was the very artists and songs featured in the film. Or, it could be that this is just really great hip-hop at its truest root. I like to think it’s a combination of all three. 94 was a golden age for rap music, and all the heavy hitters of that summer are represented on the soundtrack, everyone from Tribe Called Quest and Wu-Tang to Nas and most prominently Biggie (who at this point had not even released his debut album READY TO DIE and was being circulated around the city on mix tapes). If you are 20 years old and above, this music should ring familiar to you even if you weren’t a fan of it originally. Levine, again, does a remarkable job of capturing a particular moment in time, and the music and feeling that went along with it.
Overall. THE WACKNESS is a fresh, compelling and very real film that manages to faithfully capture an important time in my life, and for that reason alone I give it the highest praise. The fact that it is a well-executed and extremely well acted piece only adds to its lasting appeal. Check it out when it comes to a theater near you….
And be all about the dopeness.
Sadly, our time is through friends and neighbors. Check back next week where we kick this puppy back into Comic Book mode with a look at Wednesday’s standout releases. Keep em’ fresh, keep em’ funky, and as always,
“Keep em’ bagged and boarded”.
Matt Cohen is fresher then fresh, yo.
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