The Wackness (15)

Written and directed by Jonathan Levine
Screening at FACT from 29th August 2008

Summer 1994 in New York City. Mayor Giuliani‘s one-two punch of massive social program cuts and ‘zero tolerance‘ policing has left many reeling, rap and the dying days of grunge fill the airwaves, and eighteen year old Luke Shapiro (Josh Peck) is struggling with being eighteen year old Luke Shapiro, a depressed (or just “sad”?) loner with a crush on his therapist’s stepdaughter (Olivia Thirlby). But he’s not the only one with problems; all the adults in his life seem to be in trouble too. He has to sell drugs to keep a roof over his family’s head, and his shrink (an extraordinarily different Ben Kingsley) is shrinking by the day. That shit is wack.

There seem to be two main types of teen movies in cinemas these days. The first, aimed at multiplexes, is the gross-out comedy in the vein of American Pie, where the predominantly male central characters struggle to get their ends away before the closing credits. The second – think Donnie Darko or The Butterfly Effect – shows the young people stumbling through a world that feels entirely alien to them, often with dream sequence effects, to make the viewer think the problem is in the head of the suffering teen, not in the alien world. The Wackness is somewhere in between, and it succeeds because of its realness, since writer/director Jonathan Levine hasn’t so much made something up as used many different real life events and weaved a convincing story out of them.

In many ways this is a coming of age film, but it’s actually Levine’s, not Luke’s. Now in his early thirties, he looks back with some nostalgia but also great perceptiveness and tries to make sense of his place in the world. The results are both observant and touchingly funny.

So far, Levine is sure of what he doesn’t like (a world that’s being turned into “one big fucking Happy Meal”), but doesn’t seem to have much clue what he does like, beyond sex and music. He offers few easy answers, but has plenty of questions, and if he keeps asking them then his compassion and empathy will surely take him far. And his shit will be dope.

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