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Rebel Without a Beat Box
by Mel Valentin on Jul 11, 2008
Written and directed by Jonathan Levine (All the Boys Love Mandy Lane), The Wackness is a sweet-natured, coming-of-age-tale involving a teenage drug dealer trying to get by and get with the high-school girl of his dreams, all set against hip hop music (e.g., Method Man, Wu-Tang Clan, Notorious B.I.G.) and New York City, circa 1994. Insightful and hilarious in equal measure, The Wackness is a sure sign that a new, uniquely talented filmmaker, Jonathan Levine, has arrived. Levine’s first film, All the Boys Love Mandy Lane, is still awaiting distribution stateside; maybe now, it will.
Days away from high school graduation, Luke Shapiro (Josh Peck) isn’t so much looking forward to the summer than waiting it out until he can go off to college. At home, his parents (Talia Balsam and David Wohl) argue constantly, mostly about their financial trouble. To make some cash, Luke sells Jamaican weed, courtesy of his supplier, Percy (Method Man). His long list of clients includes another student, Justin (Aaron Yoo), a hippie chick, Union (Mary-Kate Olsen), a talkative musician, Elanor (Jane Adams), and his therapist, Dr. Jeffrey Squires (Ben Kingsley), who trades weed for therapy.
While Dr. Squires’ marriage to Kristin (Famke Janssen) slowly disintegrates, Luke has a mad crush on Dr. Squires’ stepdaughter and about-to-be former classmate, Stephanie (Olivia Thirlby). Stephanie hangs out with an elite crowd, but once summer starts, they scatter and Stephanie starts spending time with Luke out of boredom and need than want.
If you think you know where The Wackness is going story wise, you’d only be half-right. As a coming-of-age tale, it focuses on the life lessons Luke has to learn to make the successful transition to early adulthood. What Levine doesn’t do, thankfully, is turn The Wackness into a cautionary tale about drug dealers. True to his characters, Levine keeps the characters focused on their inner transformations and not just their physical experiences.
In fact, The Wackness is as much about Dr. Squires’ coming to grips with middle age (a middle age he initially refuses to accept) as it as about Luke’s lessons in romantic love and personal and family responsibility. And that’s all to the good, especially because Levine knows that doling out life lessons with restraint is a lesson that many, more experienced filmmakers never learn.
Also to the good are Levine's sharp, lingo-driven dialogue and the lived-in, note-perfect performances from a uniformly strong cast. The cast takes Levine’s occasionally profane, always clever, dialogue and take their flawed, if no less sympathetic, characters to a higher level of complexity. Peck is better than good as the befuddled, besotted Luke. Kingsley, better here than he’s been in a while, raises his game to keep up with Peck and Levine’s painfully hilarious dialogue. Thirlby takes what could have been a cipher or worse, a self-absorbed character, and gives her a roundedness and depth that makes Luke’s infatuation with her all the more understandable. And if that’s sounds like The Wackness is a must-see indie film, it’s because it is, without hesitation or qualification.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars
by Mel Valentin on Jul 11, 2008