In recent years, the Sundance Film Festival has been known as the essential prognosticator of the following year’s great independent movies to come. The festival has brought us great cinema such as “American Splendor,” “Once,” “Little Miss Sunshine,” and “The Station Agent.” That latter film won the Audience Award in the Dramatic category as did the recently released drama “The Wackness.” While the fest has been losing credibility since last year’s misguided praise for the horrid “Rocket Science,” this new piece is not only one of the best things to ever come out of Sundance, but one of the better coming-of-age tales since “Almost Famous” and “Ghost World.”
The film stars once child star now budding actor Josh Peck as Luke Shapiro, a drug dealing high school grad living low in the East End of 1994 New York City. Dealing with the confusion of teenage sex drive and not used to being “the cool guy” after years of being terribly unpopular, Luke’s about to learn a whole lot about life. One mentor is his psychologist Dr. Jeff Squires (Ben Kingsley), who actually turns out to be Luke’s number one customer. Luke becomes acquainted with his pothead shrink’s daughter, the wildly sexy Stephanie (Olivia Thirlby) and soon enough she becomes the unreciprocated love of his life.
The film is deceptively simple. While the plot doesn’t exactly draw in its audience, it is the excruciatingly profound characters that both excites and titillates. Sharply written, and both strangely comic and touching, “The Wackness” is an awe-inspiring vision of teen angst and a huge step forward for its two young stars and a wonderful re-emergence of its legend.
It is wondrously refreshing to see an actor Peck’s age with such a resume (he’s most well known for his debut in “Snow Day” and the kiddie series “Drake and Josh”) taking on a role like Luke Shapiro. He was featured in 2004’s dark tale “Mean Creek” as the schoolyard bully accidentally murdered by his victims, however this role in “The Wackness” called for much more than his previous indie effort. Peck is surprisingly wonderful. Luke tries desperately to be cool, and while his attempts do not have a comic effect they are instead rather moving. The actor shows he wants to make an impression in the new world of indie filmmaking and exhibits terrific showmanship in an obviously researched role. He delivers an honest performance, one of young Brando-esque quality.
Also captivating is Thirlby, who is much more impressive and shows a different range than her turn in the indie-comedy “Juno” as the title character’s best friend. Her performance is at times wildly addictive and extremely seductive. Stephanie is an absolute tease, although curiously as confused and lost as her admirer. Thirlby intertwines these characterizations with ease and is effortlessly becoming the new (Sorry, Ellen Page) indie “it-girl.”
As for the legendary Ben Kingsley, he delivers nothing but one of his best performances. He exhibits a bizarre peculiarity and throughout the entire film it is obvious that he fully savored the juicy role from beginning to end. The character of Dr. Squires is actually the most profound accident within “The Wackness.” His realization of what he believes to be an empty life is heartbreaking and through what can only be described as a tour-de-force performance that deserves exhaustive recognition, Kingsley scores.
The most appealing aspect is the remarkable chemistry not between Peck and Thirlby, but between the young man and his doctor. Their relationship blossoms into cinematic moments of perfection. It is a joy watching each character learn about life from one another whether it’s through drugs, music, laughter, or sex. Seeing them together on screen is honestly the best part about the movie and in some ways the best scenes on film in 2008.
With his first major feature film, writer/director Jonathan Levine has achieved a definitive new classic. The film sparkles with originality and has inventive detail. At times we’re allowed into the mind of Luke Shapiro, and through visualized bubble dream sequences and fun set pieces Levine has crafted a terrifically offbeat style of storytelling. With its limited time period and setting, the film would seem to have a niche audience, but transcends into a widely accessible work. Also, in some ways it is matchless in its genre in terms of its portrayal of the real misery of growing up in terms of love, heartache, and happiness.
At times the film is a bit predictable and somewhat formulaic, but it is the heartbreaking realizations of the characters of Luke and Dr. Squires that carry the entire piece. Also, the film has a relatively strong ending, coming full circle to add closure but also keeping somewhat open.
“The Wackness” is a breath of fresh air in a dead year of independent film, and its under-the-radar nature is truly a crime. Kingsley is Oscar-worthy, and hopefully this will open a veritable number of doors for its younger stars. Like this film’s motif – the heat of the summer – this film gets hotter and hotter and so do its stars. Go see “The Wackness,” yo.