Aug 25 2008
Recovering from a hangover, sitting in the trendy new Lighthouse Cinema, watching an off the wall coming of age movie, I feel as lost as the film’s main character. I knew I should have stopped about three or four Jamesons earlier last night.
However, I’m glad I made the effort to get out of bed and go see The Wackness. Like many coming of age films before it, it is more of a character study than a plot or action driven piece. We meet Luke Shapiro, just finished high school in New York’s pre-mobile-phone 1994 and about to have his final Summer before college. Some kids work in supermarkets to get some money together, Luke does not. He sells drugs.
Luke, played by Josh Peck, is an awkward, shy, apathetic youth who has no real friends and his only human contact seems to be when he is dealing drugs. His parents constantly fight and have serious money problems, leaving him essentially ignored by them. He, at 18, is still a virgin and feeling lost, alone and depressed. Luke, in exchange for drugs, gets psychiatric advice from Ben Kingsley‘s Dr. Jeffrey Squires, and develops a crush on Squires’ daughter, Stephanie, played by the best friend from Juno, Olivia Thirlby.
Thanks to Movies.ie, Anthony and I got to see this movie and it was well worth it for Kingsley alone. It is taken for granted that Ben Kingsley is a great actor, but this film highlights it better than the bigger Ghandi or Schindler’s List. His natural charisma, his simple honesty, his brutal wounds-open portrayal of a psychiatrist in a dead end marriage with no friends and no future, is incredibly moving, particularly towards the end of the film. While Luke is coming to terms with his own adolescent immaturity, so too is Dr. Squires. He seems to be reliving his empty youth through the character of Luke, wanting him to have fun, while also wanting the best for him and his life. The relationship between the teen and the aging doctor is worrying at times but always magnetic to watch. And of course, there’s the incredible, never-to-be-removed-from-my-retina moment where Kingsley and Mary-Kate Olsen make out in a phone booth. It’s ok – he only made it to second base!!!
Olsen is surprisingly effective as the silly but cute druggy, and this role may point to a decent acting career in her future. Other supporting roles from Jane Adams, Famke Janssen and Method Man are equally engaging. Peck, in the lead role, is good. Just good. He won’t be wowing the Oscars and he is unlikely to land the lead in the next Hollywood blockbuster, but his likable drug dealer straddles the line between touching naivety and street smart hardness. Yes, he learns the moral lesson; yes, he moves from childhood to manhood; yes, he finds friendship through adversity; but the clichéd coming-of-age schtick plays out in a surprising and funny way.
The era in which this film is set (mid nineties) is apparently pivotal to the film. A lot of emphasis is placed on the nineties slang, the clothes, the technology and most notably the music. But I am struggling to see why the era is important. It could just as easily be set today. There is a minor sub-plot where they discuss New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani‘s zero tolerance to crime initiatives, but that is never followed through to any climactic conclusion. The music is undoubtedly important. It is like another character in the movie, showing the differences between young and old, ‘street’ and establishment, but…well, I just don’t like rap music. It does nothing for me and musically, my favourite moment was hearing Bowie as the credits rolled.
As bad points go, this doesn’t drag down the movie much. The fine performances and the very funny plot make this a film an essential addition to my indie collection. There is a twang of Lost in Translation‘s isolation and a refreshing breath of Juno‘s comic air. It may not gain the cult following of those two movies, but it will be watched again and again for years to come.