The lyrically nostalgic romanticism that characterized Jonathan Levine’s All the Boys Love Mandy Lane is reconfigured for the ’90s—specifically, 1994—for his sophomore feature The Wackness. Levine’s distinguishing aesthetic hallmark is a washed-out visual palette dappled with blinding sunflares and slow-mo sequences set to enveloping pop and hip-hop tracks. The latter, courtesy of A Tribe Called Quest and the Notorious B.I.G. (among others), dominate this story about the unlikely friendship struck between weed-dealing Manhattan teen Luke (Josh Peck) and the wacko psychiatrist, doctor Jeff Squires (Ben Kingsley), whom he sells drugs to in exchange for therapy sessions during the blisteringly hot Manhattan summer after high school graduation. Luke and Dr. Squires share an affinity for getting high, a lust for sex, and substandard home lives, and through their relationship both learn the very lessons Squires preaches: to experience each moment to the fullest, and to not sweep pain and heartache under the rug with pills and pot—superficial methods of coping that the script equates with new mayor Giuliani’s efforts to clean up Times Square—but to accept them as natural, vital parts of life.
In its basic structural form, which also focuses on Luke’s fling with Squires’s popular stepdaughter Stephanie (Olivia Thirlby), the film delivers a rather predictable indie coming-of-age narrative, and Levine’s music video-ish sentimentality, even in an affectingly hazy sequence in which Luke stares at Stephanie frolicking in the ocean, doesn’t help alleviate such familiarity. Still, in its details, there’s something disarming about Wackness: Its period slang is at times inelegantly underlined but its intimate moments are refreshingly unaffected, its scenarios are sometimes contrived but its cast’s silent reactions to comments and incidents are convincingly unpolished, and its tale is rife with corniness that’s nonetheless smartly relieved by the director’s unwillingness to cast off humor during the mildly mawkish third act. In many respects, the film trades in dissimilar elements, with its jokiness and sappiness tenuously but effectively coexisting thanks to its collection of lived-in period particulars (the profusion of mixtapes, Luke blowing air into his Legend of Zelda NES cartridge). Contrast is certainly the lynchpin of Kingsley’s turn, who—boasting long hair and a weird quasi-New York accent—never quite seems like an earthling but nonetheless wrings a bit of charming eccentricity from the differences between his depressed, narcotized former-hippie mess of a character and his knightly real-life reputation.
It’s Peck, though, whose performance (as the “most popular of the unpopular”) holds the film together amid all its audio-video mannerisms and increasingly sappy developments, capturing the awkwardness of not quite fitting into high school hierarchies, the frustration of teenage desire, and the foundation-shaking post-graduation fear spawned by learning that parents are fallible at just the same moment that one is tasked with facing the unknown adult world alone. His jovial relationship with a Jamaican drug supplier (Method Man, whose cameo is accompanied by the sound of his “The What?” duet with Biggie) rings false, as do both a night on the town in which a stoned Squires makes out with a dreadlocked Mary-Kate Olsen, and the clichéd voicemail messages (increasingly desperate, pathetic, and heartfelt) that Luke eventually is compelled to leave for Stephanie. Yet in the way his cocky glares mask trembling insecurity and his slang and swagger barely conceal his escalating anxiety and misery, Peck crafts a recognizable portrait of adolescence on the precipice of great change, in the process earning not only our sympathy but our support in following Squires’s advice to go to college and seize the day…which, in the dirty old shrink’s coarse way, comes out as “Try and fuck a black girl.”