The Wackness is one of those films that sort
of sneaks up on you while you watch it.
I went into the screening at the LA Film Festival fully aware of all the
accolades it’s been receiving since its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival
back in January (where it won the Audience Award). As soon as the film began, I was intrigued by the soundtrack that
director Jonathan Levine had put together.
The film is period piece set in 1994 New York City, so, obviously,
hip-hop was going to play a major role in the proceedings. And it does to great effect.
The film, as many of you know by now, revolves around Luke
Shapiro (Josh Peck), a young drug dealer who trades dope with his therapist Dr.
Squires (Sir Ben Kingsley) in exchange for some one-on-one time to discuss his
ever-changing young adult life. Things
get complicated when Luke falls hard for Stephanie (Olivia Thirlby), the
One would assume based solely on that summary alone, the
film would be headed toward a collision course of inane melodramatic
sequences. Believe me, it doesn’t. That has to do with the strong script
(written by Levine), as well as his three leads. We all know that Kingsley is a great actor. Gandhi, Schindler’s List,
Sexy Beast. But like all
great actors, he’s growing tired of today’s film landscape and probably feels
he has nothing left to prove. Because
of that, he isn’t trying as hard as he once did. Well, I’m happy to report the Kingsley we all know is back in top
form as one of the most peculiar doctors you are ever likely to see on the big
screen. This guy is like a
jack-in-the-box ready to pop at any moment.
He’s the equivalent of Shapiro; in that, he’s living his life presumably
without a care in the world because he doesn’t know what he wants from it. Everything was just sort of given to him and
he ran with it. But what happens when
the simple lifestyle stops being simple and starts kicking you when you’re down
and doesn’t let up? Dr. Squires answers
those questions and more without a single word. It’s all in the body movements and eyes. Only Kingsley could pull this role off. Welcome back, Sir Ben.
Josh Peck was the wild card for me. Here’s a kid who was once the star of
Nickelodeon television programming for kids, with spurts of edgy fare in his
filmography over the years, such as Mean Creek and Spun
(both great films in their own right).
Otherwise, I always regarded him as the kid from Drake and Josh. Well, imagine my surprise when he stood his
ground opposite Kingsley in a number of sequences. And that doesn’t look easy.
What should have been the typical portrayal of teen angst quickly
becomes one of the most perfectly imperfect protagonists I’ve seen in a long
while. Shapiro is a kid who doesn’t
know what he wants to do with his life.
He just wants to live it. The
problem is, everyone around him doesn’t let him do that. Add love into the mix, and you have a recipe
for disaster. After this film, if Peck
plays his cards right, he’ll be pretty huge in the coming years. His talent is effortless and sincere, while
maintaining a combination of sincerity and humility. As the audience, you quickly align yourself with Shapiro and his
Since her appearances in Juno and Snow
Angels, Olivia Thirlby has quickly become the poster girl for the indie
film scene. The Wackness
will easily catapult her to the top of in-demand young actresses, indie or
otherwise. Without giving too much
away, her character takes part in certain acts that should make the audience
despise her. Interestingly enough, she
comes off as being… human. Faults and
all are on full display. She’s spunky
without being annoying and smart without being too preachy and self-indulgent. Her character walks a fine line that she
straddles with ease. But the most
important facet of her character (and this goes for all of them actually, it’s
just really obvious with hers) is that the development of her character sort of
sneaks up on you. It’s not until you’ve
fully digested the film that you truly appreciate the impact of her
As I said earlier, the soundtrack of the film is a character
in itself. I’ve never been the type to
listen to hip-hop and R&B, but after watching The Wackness,
I’m willing to give the likes of the Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac a listen. Like the film itself, their rhymes tell
universal stories with a language all their own.
With only two films under his belt (this and the horror film
All The Boys Love Mandy Lane… still waiting on it!), director
Levine is well on his way to becoming a force in the film world. The Wackness is sure to spread
his name throughout the industry and get him more high-profile writing and
directing gigs. The only problem is,
the film faces a July release. As great
as it is, Hellboy II, The Dark Knight and The
X-Files: I Want To Believe will prevent the film from going
anywhere. That’s sad because The
Wackness is the type of film that needs to be seen with an audience and
I guess Sony Pictures Classics thought they’d counter-program the summer movie
season with a low-key indie about life and love in New York City. If I’m wrong, and the film does turn out to
be a sleeper success, great. It’ll be
one of the few times where I’ll happily accept being wrong. Personally, I would’ve positioned this film
in a September or October slot, just in time for awards season.
With that in mind, the great thing about The Wackness,
and the reason why it’s won the Audience Award at the Sundance and Los Angeles
Film Festival, is that it doesn’t try to be or win anything. It just is its own entity. It’s a film that embraces the highs and lows
of life because, no matter what’s going on, this is what we’ve been dealt, so
we better not fuck it up.