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Arts & Culture

The Wackness

Ben Kingsley lights up in The Wackness (Sony Pictures Classics)

1994 may not seem like a year that inspires much nostalgia - it's a bit too recent to feel like it's completely faded from memory and it lacks a readily defining look in terms of clothes or hair. Yet it does mark the year that Rudy Giuliani began his reign as mayor of New York City, and began his crusade of "cleaning up" the city. It's against this backdrop that Levine spins his tale of Luke Shapiro who describes himself as "the most popular of the unpopular" at school. His popularity stems solely from his drug dealing. That's how he met the genuinely popular Stephanie (Juno's Olivia Thirlby), who also happens to be his shrink's stepdaughter. Luke falls hard for Stephanie and as the summer heats up, she takes an interest in him. But we can't tell for sure if she's just bored or if she's taken a genuine liking to him.

In an odd way this is a coming of age tale for both Luke and Dr. Squires. Both are adrift, unsatisfied, and lacking in real maturity. The film takes a distinctly male perspective as the women (Stephanie, her mom, Luke's mother, and Luke's assorted female customers) are on the periphery and exist as a bit of a blur. They are objects of desire to the two men but they remain somewhat distant and unfathomable. In the end both Luke and Dr. Squires come to some hard realizations about the women in their lives.


Josh Peck and Olivia Thirlby in The Wackness (Sony Pictures Classics)

Peck's Luke is a bit of a problem in the film because he's a passive character for the most part. Peck finds something genuine in Luke but he's also a bit mopey. Peck's performance allows Thirlby and Kingsley to steal the film from under him. Thirlby, the best friend in Juno and the teen photographer in Snow Angels, is a radiant presence. It's easy to see why Luke would be so beguiled by her. Kingsley goes for broke as the middle-aged shrink making a desperate last grasp at happiness... or a reasonable facsimile. Despite the difference in age, he proves to be Luke's best friend and confidante. Levine gets a kick out of having Sir Ben lighting up a big bong and spinning hippie-dippy wisdom about life and love. Squires preaches that one should experience each moment to the fullest, and embrace the pain and heartache as part of that experience. Yet both Squires and Luke use drugs to soften those experiences, and Levine doesn't judge them for that. In a way, their drug use comes across as a quiet rebellion to Guiliani's campaign clean up the city.

Levine drains his images of color and only allows for an occasional flare of sunlight brighten and intensify scenes. He allows Luke an occasional flight of fancy, whether on the subway imagining himself in a hip-hop video, or dancing home after an evening with Stephanie. These moments play nicely but Levine has more trouble with events that should be more rooted in reality. It's hard to buy that Luke has such an easy time selling drugs from his ice cream cart and no one during the heat wave ever asks him for an ice cream is a bit hard to take.

The Wackness (rated R for pervasive drug use, language and some sexuality) is best in its quiet moments. Levine often finds an honesty in the silences between characters. Levine could have given more bite to his coming of age tale but he displays a compassion for his two leads that eventually wins us over as well.


Companion viewing: Igby Goes Down, Garden State, All the Boys Love Mandy Lane