Hidden Gem: The Wackness

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The coming of age movie genre has become quite saturated in recent years, and this unfortunately has lead to some great films within that genre being overshadowed by their bigger contemporaries. Case in point would certainly be The Wackness, a 2008 Independent Film written and directed by Jonathan Levine (who would go on to direct 50/50), that won the audience award at that year’s Sundance Film Festival.

The Wackness follows teenage drug dealer Luke Shapiro (played by Drake and Josh star Josh Peck) during the sweltering summer that swept over New York in 1994. Shapiro is an introvert loner whose only real relationship is with his immature shrink Dr. Squires (played by the legend that is Ben Kingsley), who also is one of Shapiro’s key customers. Luke has just graduated high school, now he has this summer to earn enough to hopefully stop his parent’s getting evicted, alongside trying to lose his virginity to Squires’ beautiful stepdaughter Steph, before he heads off to college.

The film’s vibrant period setting of 90’s New York (a shot on location New York no less) serves as a really unique and immersive backdrop, one which the filmmakers clearly put a lot of effort into. Characters talk of Mayor Giuliani’s strict drug laws, play NES, rock shell toe sneaks and make references to things like Kriss Kross and Beverly Hills 90210. A big element that helps the film capture the spirit and the mood of the times is its mellow soundtrack, mainly composed of 90’s hip hop tracks. Truly Immortal rappers such as NAS, Biggie, KRS One and A Tribe Called Quest all feature. This colossus of a soundtrack does overshadow the film’s tender score, which is a shame.

The film’s supporting cast is eclectic and strong. Funnily enough a lot of the players here were in fact big stars of the nineties. Former Wu Tang member Method Man, Goldeneye Bond girl Famke Jensen and Full House star Mary-Kate Olsen all have memorable and entertaining cameos. For my money the best cameo comes from none other than heavyweight boxer Shannon Briggs – LETS GO CHAMP!

However the obvious stand outs from the cast are Peck and Kingsley, with their on-screen relationship being the heart of this film. The two have great chemistry and really play off each other well; I don’t just mean this in a comedic sense, they also really play off each other well in regards to the darker drama elements of the film- a stand out scene being the poignant beach scene between the two near the film’s end. The Wackness is a film that is just as likely to make you laugh as it is to cry, and it is largely thanks to the work of these two stars, who make both their characters really relatable. At first, what looks like an unusual relationship really blossoms into something endearing.

Despite not being the film’s protagonist, considerable focus is put on the erratic character of Dr Squires, who, like Shapiro goes through a coming of age arc in the film. Whereas Luke’s arc revolves around him learning to put himself out there, and the simple joys of doing such regardless of end-results, the arc of Dr Squires is about him accepting his age, and not trying to shun the problems that plague him (e.g. his loveless marriage). A clever way Levine represents this is by having the song Squires gives Luke when they exchange mixtape cassettes, ‘All the Young Dudes’. Squires is desperate to be young and free again, and he helps Luke learn to relish such and not get bogged down in his personal pains. It’s fitting that therapy is at the heart of this friendship, as both of these characters have therapeutic effects on each other, and through such they develop emotionally.

Olivia Thirlby plays Shapiro’s love interest Steph, who refreshingly is not your stereotypical Manic-Pixie Dream Girl. Steph is just a bored teenage girl, looking for a laugh over the summer while her friends are all on holiday. Credit needs to be given to Thirlby as this role deliberately doesn’t have too much depth, but thanks to her natural charm and seductive screen presence she makes you still sympathise with the character, even when she behaves callously.  Her relationship with Shapiro has one of the most resonant resolutions I’ve seen in a film of this sort. Unlike other recent coming of age films it opts to be bittersweet instead of mawkish.

Shapiro’s thoughts and feelings are kept at the forefront of the film through both sexually charged daydreams, and free flowing narration. Because of this we get a window into Luke’s insecurities, which makes him a character you really come to be invested in. Unlike other leads in the coming of age genre he isn’t annoying and pretentious, he feels genuine and you find yourself levelling with him as he thinks like a normal teenage lad.

Levine has a lot of fun in the director’s chair. A middle finger POV shot, graffiti transitions and a homage to Billy Jean, are just a few of the little directorial quirks he’s worked in. Whilst speaking on a technical level, props need to be given to the film’s cinematographer, as she manages to balance a golden summer glare, with a washed out murkiness. This colour palette gives the film a distinctive look, as well as heightening the feeling that you’re looking at this story through a lens of nostalgia.

The Wackness (2008), directed by Jonathan Levine, is distributed by Revolver Entertainment, Certificate 15.

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