The Wackness

Directed by Jonathan Levine


If The Wackness signals the end of the eighties revival era, then I say give Jonathan Levine a freaking Nobel Prize or something because I thought the second eighties would never end. But it’s not the only reason to like this movie. In fact, after seeing the The Wackness I felt like someone had reached into my brain and found all my particular cultural fetishes and created something custom made for me:

(1) This is a “coming-of-age” movie. The “coming-of-age” genre is that special subgenre of the teen movie which affects you on a much more primal level than say your Cluelesses or your Mean Girls because its central protagonists achieve more than merely humiliating the school jock or being the Prom Queen. They achieve growth from experiencing painful truths. They realise that the world is so much bigger than what they thought it to be.

(2) This is period film set in the nineties. 1994 to be precise. The nineties was my childhood and it was a time when I could wake up early and sober on a Saturday morning and watch the latest video clips. The culture of the nineties imprinted itself on me in a way that culture can’t do now simply because I’m busy and my cultural tastes are much wider than they were back then. So it’s very exciting to see that period on the screen. The film knocks it out of the park with the period detail from the clothes, to the pagers, to the language. I suspect the adjective “mad” may come into much more frequent usage after more people see this film.

(3) This film is soundtracked with mid-nineties hip hop. Mid nineties hip hop! Sometimes I think this music is forgotten but when you hear a song drop at a party, the kids can’t resist it. Notorious B.I.G. A Tribe Called Quest. The Wu Tang Clan. R Kelly. Will Smith(!) Need I say more?

(4) This is a New York film. New York has attained a mythical status on the screen and director Jonathan Levine treats the city with due reverence. Levine has cited Woody Allen’s Manhattan and Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing as some of his inspirations and you can see it on the screen, though his fondness for lens flares and light spills reminded me more of Annie Hall than Manhattan. The characters are constantly commenting on new mayor Rudy Giuliani’s tough stance on crime (probably a bit too much), making the point that when the city was cleaned up perhaps something of the city’s character was lost. This film is almost a valentine to the messy, screwed up New York that was.

Now what can you expect plot-wise?

Teenage pot-dealer Luke Shapiro (Josh Peck) has no friends, inadequate parents and no dating skills. He harbours a crush for Stephanie (Olivia Thirlby) whose father Dr Squires (Ben Kingsley) offers Luke therapy sessions in return for weed. In the sweltering summer following his graduation, Luke forges a friendship with Dr Squires and sparks an unlikely romance with Stephanie who seems way out of Luke’s league. To be honest, it’s familiar territory. But Levine makes it fresh by finding some brilliant performances in his actors. Ben Kingsley is the obvious attraction. He is so funny and completely unhinged. He’s a bit like a Hunter S Thompson in this movie, perpetually in a drug-addled state and not really ever concerned about getting out of it even if it is ruining his relationship with Famke Janssen. Josh Peck as the lead captures the faux-machismo of teenage boys perfectly and he seems all the more vulnerable because of it. Olivia Thirlby as the love interest plays in a similar mold to Juno’s sarcastic spunky heroine but without the cringeworthy hipster dialogue. (Thirlby was the friend in Juno). She has a naturally attractive, offbeat quality that American indie directors obviously find adorable. Check out her work in Snow Angels to further strengthen your girl crush.

Also in supporting roles are Method Man as a Jamaican drug dealer and Mary-Kate Olsen as a tripped out hippy who seemingly lives in Central Park. Casting an Olsen twin might seem like a gimmicky mistake except for the fact that she has a full-on make out session with Ghandi himself. Worth the price of admission.

This is just an unbelievably sweet and funny film. The people who understand the cultural references will probably be able to take more from this film. For example, I’m not 100% certain that David and Margaret would be able to explain the humour of the line “I wanna listen to Boys II Men when I’m with you”. If you can’t either than this film still has that universal appeal in helping you remember that fake memory of losing your virginity next to the beach with a perfect sunset.


Igby Goes Down (Burr Steers, 2002)

As long as JD Salinger is alive, he will probably never sell the film rights to Catcher in the Rye. People who want to see that film will, for now, have to settle for films like The Wackness and Igby Goes Down.


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