Jonathan Levine was nothing short of ebullient when discussing his film THE WACKNESS with me on May 3, 2008. Filming on location in New York, tales of Sundance, and how to circumvent the anti-graffiti laws were just the start as the conversation also turned to unorthodox casting and the essence of hip-hop.
The thing that everyone will be talking about in THE WACKNESS is the make-out scene between scrawny nymphet Mary-Kate Olsen and the leathery, aging Sir Ben Kingsley. It’s deeply unsettling, and not just because it’s more than mere making out. Not just because of the age difference. Not just because it’s Gandhi and the erstwhile toddler television star. No, there’s more to it, as if that weren’t enough. It’s because the drug-addled hippie chick and the drug-addled psychiatrist are just the sort of people who would hook up for reasons that include boredom and anger and without much enjoying the experience and what that says about the disquieting nature of human despair speaks eloquent and visceral volumes. And that is exactly why Jonathan Levine’s gritty, hip-hop fueled coming-of-age tale, set firmly in Giuliani’s New York of 1994, is a fresh and startling film. He takes risks that would make other filmmakers quail and he pulls them off. Mostly.
But enough about them. The real story her is Luke (Josh Peck), a likeable guy and thereby lies the root of his problem. He’s got a heart and one that hasn’t been hardened enough to the world around him. It’s an oddly persistent sort of innocence considering that world. He’s just graduating from high school and, unlike his impecunious father in more conventional business, Luke is a successful entrepreneur with a tidy bankroll from dealing drugs from an ersatz Italian ice-cart to a relatively harmless cross-section of upper-middle class angst.
THE WACKNESS isn’t a new story, but it is invigorated by a savvy script that is equal parts comedy and tragedy, both arising from the same seemingly bottomless wellspring of adolescent hormones and hair-trigger emotions. It’s a reminder of why coming-of-age stories, when done right, are a staple of art, and why reliving the painful awkwardness of it all can be both cathartic and reassuring.