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 here 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. It’s the likeable part that makes his rounds so successful, and his dealings with his supplier so smooth, despite the latter’s armed posse ready to wreak mayhem at the first wrong move and/or word. It’s the likeable part, though, that is the seemingly insurmountable stumbling block that’s also keeps him from the only thing that matters to him, which would be getting in with the cool kids at school, who buy from him while merciless belittling and shortchanging him, particularly the fetching and fetchingly nihilistic Stephanie (Olivia Thirlby), whose perceived perfection symbolizes all that Luke wants out of life. She, of course, dismisses him, but in that let’s-just-be-friends way that is more devastating than a complete rejection. Fortunately, Luke has an in, sort of, in the person of Stephanie’s reviled step-father, Dr. Squires (Kingsley), who is not only Luke’s therapist, he’s also a client, their relationship done on a barter basis of goods, services, and taking turns being the grown-up.
Squires, of course, warns him off, seeing in the girl an unsettling reflection of her physically stunning but emotionally vacant mother (Famke Janssen), the woman who has been making his life a living hell for a dozen years or so. Luke, of course, doesn’t listen, and when the cool kids take off for the summer leaving Stephanie lonely and bored, he makes his move, leading to a world of education for both himself and Squires.
With the exception of Kingsley, who seems to think he is in an Elizabethan drama, the cast is a powerhouse. Sir Ben is downright irritating, far too stiff and stagy to get at the emotional meat of his character’s coming apart at the seams, and that leaves a very large hole in the film. It’s filled in nicely by Peck, with his muffin face and puppy dog eyes, he is sobering mixture of maturity and innocence. He deftly has Luke negotiate the inherent embarrassment of first love with a more experienced woman, and the effortless bravado of a working relationship with a thug in the original gangsta mold. In doing so he gets to the essence of Luke’s real tragedy, which is that he doesn’t realize that he is the best man in his circle, and cooler in all the ways that really count. Thirlby does the bored and vulnerable bit with a nice raspy edge, while Olsen is nothing short of a revelation, ferociously digging into a part that lets her grow up and showcase a range that is impressive and promising. Janssen, in a less showy part, is pungent as Squires’ icy wife, oozing a contempt for her unctuous meal ticket with a vicious ennui, as though he is barely worth the effort to notice, much less actively despise.
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.