In the summer of 1994, Rudolph Giuliani’s crackdown and cleanup of New York City was in full force, Hip Hop had reached amazing highs, and Luke Shapiro was not only dealing pot, but dealing with the harsh realities of life as an 18-year-old.Â This is The Wackness, a coming of age story about a boy spending his last summer before college, selling dope to all of NYC, including his shrink as payment for therapy sessions and pining after his step-daughter, all the while facing family problems which he can’t control. Take it from me, The Wackness is anything and everything but wack. If there’s one movie you see this summer, forgo all others for this edgy, sweet, sometimes heartbreaking and hilarious tale with amazing performances and a killer soundtrack that you’ll be bopping your head to for weeks.
Featuring a well-rounded cast including Josh Peck, Olivia Thirlby, Ben Kinglsey, Mary Kate Olsen and Method Man, The Wackness makes you wish you could relive 1994 all over again.
Luke Shapiro (Josh Peck) is graduating the 4 years of teen angst known as high school. “Tomorrow, my life changes,” he says. “Tomorrow, I graduate. Then I go to my safety school, then I get older, and then, I die.” While Luke struggles with his family, his life, school and the behavior of his classmates, who only speak to him when they’re in dire need of weed, he befriends Dr. Squires (Ben Kingsley), a therapist who although decades older than Luke, is also struggling with aspects of his life, including the growing distance between him and his much younger wife (Famke Janssen). In exchange for therapy, Luke supplies Dr. Squires with drugs, in addition to the number of prescription medications he takes to numb himself to oblivion.
While Luke and Dr. Squires have sessions in which they discuss sex, their love lives or lack thereof and their families, they realize they’re more alike and share similar problems then they previously had thought, especially when it comes to getting laid.
On top of that, Luke is in love with Dr. Squires’ stepdaughter, Stephanie (Olivia Thirlby), who he realizes is definitely out of his league.
As they spend their summer walking around New York City, Luke teaches Squires the ancient art of tagging, how to deal weed in lieu of Giuliani’s staunch police force and the likes of Notorious B.I.G., Nas, A Tribe Called Quest and Wu-Tang Clan.
As Luke sets off selling weed in a ice container to help his family sort out their growing financial woes, Stephanie and him become much closer than he ever expects. She also ends up showing Luke another harsh reality of life: unrequited love.
Thirlby and Peck’s portrayal of two teenagers just trying to find their place in the world speaks volumes. At times, you forget you’re watching a movie and you suddenly transported back to the time when you experienced the same trials, tribulations and triumphs.
As therapist and patient experience the bumpy roller coaster of life together, their roles often become reversed and it is Luke who suddenly has to be the adult. Throughout their journey, they discover and rediscover themselves and try to make sense of where their lives are headed.
During one stroll in Times Square, Squires and Luke have a poignant moment. “Look around you Luke,” Squires says. “Is this what you want for your mind, your life? You want it to be like this city, sweep all the nasty bits under the rug, make everything ok?”
Fans of Nikelodeon’s Drake and Josh might hardly be able to recognize Josh Peck as Luke, however his performance in The Wackness is one they won’t be able to forget. In quite a peculiar and unfamiliar role is Sir Ben Kingsley as a weed-smoking and pill-popping therapist whose accent you can’t quite figure out, which is just a testament to his flexibility and greatness as an actor. Olivia Thirlby is believable and comfortable in her role as Stephanie and when asked why at The Wackness press junket, Thirlby replied, “Because I am Stephanie and Stephanie is me.”
Method Man excels as Percy, the Rastafarian drug lord who supplies Luke with weed. Though he barely has a couple lines, you’re left wanting more interaction between him and Luke. Many of his lines were left on the cutting room floor.
Other notable performances include Mary Kate Olsen as Union, a free spirited, hippy customer of Luke’s and a West Highland Terrier named Jesus Christ.With all the great performances, dialogue and cinematography of gritty New York City, a big part of what makes the film is the brilliant soundtrack, which features the likes of Raekwon (Heaven & Hell), Nas (The World Is Yours), A Tribe Called Quest (Can I Kick It?) and Wu-Tang Clan (Tearz).
As Levine says, “while the lives of my friends and I were distant from the gangsta life of the rappers, we identified with their spirit, and the authenticity of the feeling that they embodied. So we listened.” Truer words have not been spoken. So, do yourself a favor and go see The Wackness, you won’t regret it. You’ll probably walk out the theater and rush home to dig up your mixed tapes of the 90s, and that’s never a bad thing.
Photos courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics