The more things change, the more they stay the same. There’s a peculiar symmetry to the The Wackness, a film that takes place amid the sweeping changes occurring in and around 1994 New York City. After decades of inept and feckless local government, the boroughs began feeling the Mussolini-like effects of the Rudolph Giuliani regime. “Giuliani Time” saw New York through some of it’s most painful and rewarding moments that still echo through the metropolis today; the hardline pursuit of law and order, the Disney-fication of Times Square and Hell’s Kitchen, the favouring of the rich over the poor, the ruthless gentrification of long-held neighbourhood residences and shops that continues today. Fourteen years later, not a whole lot has changed for New York City, so while The Wackness takes place in 1994, it’s easy to visualise this story of a young man’s adjustments to the shifting backdrops in his own world if it were happening today.
School’s out for summer and in Luke’s case, high school’s out forever. Not the most popular kid, but no class geek, Luke is able to swim through the tricky social waters via his after (- and during) school job as a pot dealer. Luke looks on his profession the way another more passé kid might look at a paper route, only his rolled up papers bring our boy a lot more money. Luke is remarkably responsible for someone peddling a brain cell-obliterating narcotic, stepping into the role of man of the house as his spiteful mother and castrated father bicker over their failing fortunes and the teen spends the summer raising money selling weed out of a bogus Italian icey cart to save the family from being evicted. All this pressure on a young lad’s gotta have some release, so Luke agrees to barter his wares for therapy sessions with one of his best clients, Dr. Squires. Squires, a disillusioned émigré of the flower power and Me generations sees a chance to relive his youth vicariously through his young patient. A fringe benefit of Dr. Squires’ companionship is that Luke gets to see a lot more of the doctor’s stepdaughter, Stephanie, Luke’s school crush. Both Stephanie and Luke are stuck in the city for the summer. The summer romance that develops between the two is the biggest thing to happen for Luke, but not so much for Stephanie, who’s dealing with her own family traumas. What is a pleasant summer respite for Stephanie becomes the first great love for Luke, who frets over what is going to happen in all the unsettled parts of his life at summer’s end.
Despite one of the best soundtracks ever compiled for a film and all the trappings of mid-90’s New York City, The Wackness is a classic coming-of-age story. Jonathan Levine draws upon much of his own experience to depict a refreshingly honest, sweet portrait of what life was like for a teenaged boy growing up during that time in New York history. Luke is a hip-hop devotee, which is lucky for him because those years were some of the most innovative and productive in that music’s history and many of those epochal tracks and feel-good jams are carefully placed in The Wackness as if they were another cast member. Luke’s pot supplier is a Jamaican bloke named Percy, who operates in a bunker with armed guards at the door. The nebbishy, shy Jewish kid and the patois-slinging drug dealer share a common ground discussing the newest hip-hop acts, and the guileless boy is one of the precious few Percy trusts. Luke’s open face and affability are some of the things that make him such a client favourite.
As the summer stagnates, a wild-eyed Dr. Squires accompanies Luke on a prowl around the city on a quest for doctor-ordered sex and adventure that lands the young man and the middle aged drug-addict in jail after the doc’s first unfortunate attempt at tagging gets noticed by the five-o. Eventually the lovely Stephanie decides to give our sweet hero a shot as they partake of a sticky-sweet romance with Luke’s boombox and mixtape collection providing the mood music. Bored, lonely Stephanie's happy summer fling has meant much more to Luke and as is the way with every first heartbreak, Luke hits bottom with all the impotent rage and vengeance against the female species he can muster. As if this wasn’t enough, Luke’s father has failed to recoup his financial losses and even with all Luke’s top-notch ganja sales; their time in the family home is over. All that Luke has endured with his bittersweet romance, watching the sad flailing of Dr. Squires in his middle age crazy and trying to save the home front has forged a different young man than the one who began the summer and despite all against him at the moment, at the end of it all we know that our college-bound Luke’s going to turn out all right.
Director Levine manages to suggest New York in the 90’s with clear attention to the slang, the hairdos and costumes and even the look of the film stock. Rather than spend on expensive sets, a well-placed phone booth inside murky interior of a smoke-filled bar goes a long way. Many of the characters verbally express a paranoia that is as much to do with what they’re smoking as their fear that Giuliani’s anti-drug Gestapo will put them away for smoking it. The outward affects of the film aren’t the only reminder of the period; The Wackness closely resembles its ancestor, 1995’s Kids, a very different coming of age tale. The biggest similarity they share is a realistic representation of disaffected New York youth. The lack of parental input or responsibility has left these teens scarily hyper-adult. For Luke’s school pals drinking, drugs, breaking night and casual sex are run-of-the-mill party games. Despite his occupation, it’s easy to see how Luke, open-hearted and vulnerable could come out of that rush of hormones and irresponsibility bruised and tattered.
How to make a character like Luke, a sweet, sensitive teenaged pot dealer believable and even more difficult, how to get the audience on his side? Get Josh Peck to play him, that’s how. The star of the popular Nickelodeon kiddie series, Drake and Josh (- I believe he plays Josh) has made a few forays onto the big screen, most recently as a bully in the unfortunate Drillbit Taylor. All tween programming and Butterscotch Stallion fiascos aside; The Wackness is a star making role for the young actor. It’s a perfect melding of performer and character as Peck; the Hell’s Kitchen native inhabits Luke the pudgy, shy babyman. With his 90’s fringe flopped over one eye highlighting an awkward, crooked smile there’s no question why the sophisticated Stephanie would take an interest in the earnest puppy dog. Peck lays bare every one of Luke’s emotions (- and his backside) and it’s impossible not to relate to the rollercoaster of his pain and root for Luke when the chips are down.
Olivia Thirlby gives a sweet and skillful performance as Luke’s first love, Stephanie, who for all her worldliness, is still a young girl buffeted by the whims of her self-centered parents. Thirlby takes a role that could have been read as incredibly unsympathetic and gives Stephanie heart and depth. The Wu-Tang Clan’s Method Man has a clever bit as Percy, the barracked drug dealer. It’s Percy who hands Luke a new tape making its way through ghetto-blasters in the know by a new rapper he advises Luke to listen to called The Notorious B.I.G ( Method Man was the only rapper Biggie requested to appear on his seminal rap opus, Ready to Die.).
Of course, what would The Wackness be without the leading light of Sir Ben Kingsley as the drug-addled, unhappy, ageing Dr. Squires? In a completely selfless performance, Kingsley gives himself totally over to the insanity of the therapist going kicking and screaming into middle age. His bartered sessions with the young pot dealer inspire Squires to recapture the carefree days of his youth, whether it be dragging his patient around old bar haunts, accompanying him on pot runs, discovering that graffiti is actually a crime, or fornicating in a public phone booth with some blissed-out latter-day hippie a third his age (- Oh, Mary-Kate Olsen!). The wired, frenetic madness of Squires’ travels with Luke is only a balm for the loneliness and dejection of his dissolving marriage and the balance of desperation, bravado and pathos Kingsley strikes is perfect, yet at no point does he ever outshine his younger costars and trade lines (- and rap lyrics) hilariously with Josh Peck. Wonderful.
The Wackness encompasses a few different love stories: First, Jonathan Levine’s adoration for his New York City hometown, fading away in 1994 and continuing to disappear fourteen years later. There is the love for oneself that the wretched Dr. Squires must find in order for the physician to heal himself of his despair. Lastly, Levine captures purely and honestly a teenaged boy’s tender, heartbreaking first love with a sweetness and sincerity that makes The Wackness unforgettable.
Mad props, yo.
~ Mighty Ganesha
July 2nd 2008
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(Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics)