Jonathan Levine’s newest endeavor, The Wackness, however, is an exception. Its direct, genuine look at the pains and pleasures of growing up in a harsh world where happy endings are not guaranteed is refreshing.
In the sticky heat of summer in 1994 New York, Luke (Josh Peck), a socially insecure teenage dope dealer, sells weed out of a rolling ice cream stand. His first stop is his quirky therapist Dr. Squires (the masterful Sir Ben Kingsley) whom he trades his drugs for counseling sessions.
Luke lives life as somewhat of a loner, his confidence level with girls severely lacking and his family life less than perfect – two bickering parents and a house on the verge of foreclosure. Squires can identify with Luke’s inability to connect; His much-younger wife (Famke Janssen) is slipping away, and his stepdaughter Stephanie (Olivia Thirlby) keeps her distance.
The two lost souls form an unlikely, but complementary friendship. Luke’s looking to grow up, and Squires is grasping for his youth.
Adventure ensues as Squires tags along with Luke to sell drugs (which Luke purchases from a Rastafarian dealer played by Method Man), while teenage romance blossoms between Luke and Squires’ stepdaughter.
In a particularly hilarious scene, Squires madly makes out with a drunken, flitzy, flower child (Mary-Kate Olsen) in a phone booth.
But along with the humor sprinkled throughout the script, there’s deep pain. It’s apparent that for both Squires and Luke, there exists an emptiness in their lives that they’re relentlessly searching to fill, but continually falling short.
The need to escape the reality of life manifests itself in drugs. There are moments of ecstasy – Luke losing his virginity to the girl of his dreams and Squires reconnecting with his wife on a weekend getaway – but the moments are fleeting.
“It’s funny, it’s endearing,” says Kingsley of the film. “But at the heart of it ... it is really tragic, lonely.”
Thirlby expresses a similar sentiment.
“It’s a film about growing up, and you see many people in many different stages of their lives growing up. It’s also kind of about drugs and self-medicating and how easy it is to gloss over your pain and your fear,” she says. “Whether you’re smoking weed or taking valium, sometimes it’s a lot better to face your pain front on and sober.”
The soundtrack played a significant role in conveying the mixed moods of teenage life. East Coast rap and hip-hop were blowing up in the ’90s in New York and expressed both the happiness and angst of teenage culture, so the film uses them to its advantage.
Method Man is more than thrilled.
“I can’t even describe the feeling I get when I hear those songs from that era right now,” he says. “The best analogy I can give you is sitting in your car, you’re driving, and you just happen to hear a song on the radio that you hadn’t heard in a long time, and something compels you to just turn it up.”
Stylistically, the film complemented its bitter sweetness. The color scheme remains dull and fairly monochromatic using dramatic shadows, but in moments of ecstasy, the colors become vibrant and full.
“That murkiness I think mirrors where the characters are at emotionally,” explains director Levine. “Once each character gets a little more happy or a little more out there, then we start to open up the color palate a little bit and make it more vibrant and saturated.”
Between the tremendously talented cast, bumpin’ soundtrack, great direction and thematic script, this film is anything but wack.
The Wackness releases in select theaters July 3.