Director: Jonathan Levine
Writer: Jonathan Levine
Starring: Josh Peck, Ben Kingsley, Olivia Thirlby, Famke Janssen
Runtime: 99 minutes
Views: 1st Viewing
The short career of director Jonathan Levine has been a very interesting ride thus far. One is never certain what his next project is going to be, and who he’s going to be collaborating with. Having finally seen all four of his features, I can safely say that The Wackness is his stand-out film. The film is centred on a young man by the name of Luke Shapiro (Josh Peck), who has just completed his final year of high school and will be leaving for college in the Fall. Luke deals marijuana out of an ice stand he pushes around New York City to make money for himself. He is also in therapy with Dr. Jeffrey Squires (Ben Kingsley), whom he pays with said marijuana. Luke forms a rather strong bond with Dr. Squires and eventually his step-daughter Stephanie (Olivia Thirlby), and also begins dealing more pot in order to help pay for his family’s possible eviction. The Wackness takes place over the entire summer of 1994, with Luke falling in love with Stephanie, having trouble at home, crafting a friendship with the much older Dr. Squires, and being a lonely and unique teenager in New York City.
From a distance, The Wackness just looks and sounds like yet another coming-of-age film. Luckily, the film is unlike any other coming-of-age drama ever made in the way that it studies its characters and settings. The characters of Luke Shapiro and Dr. Squires truly elevates The Wackness from standard teenage romp to something truly special and even touching in some moments. The Wackness’ soundtrack is filled to the brim with 1990’s hip-hop, perfectly complimenting the mid-90’s New York setting, and the character of Luke. Jonathan Levine’s script is laugh out loud hilarious in some moments, and genuinely insightful and inspirational in others. Levine’s sensitive and subtle direction throughout the film adds perfectly his his script, crafting a very underplayed and character-based film. Jonathan Levine’s career highlights include 2006’s brilliant slasher film All the Boy’s Love Mandy Lane (which has been bogged down by release problems for years), 2011’s 50/50 (well-acted and fairly well-written, 50/50 didn’t quite connect with me on a personal level), and 2013’s Warm Bodies. This impressive filmography proves that the Levine is incredibly talented at both writing (he also penned Warm Bodies), and commanding his actors to great performances. To add to Levine’s direction and script, the acting in The Wackness is another highlight of the film, particularly in the characters of Luke Shapiro and Dr. Squires.
Josh Peck’s performance in the film as Luke Shapiro is one of the greatest things about the film, and one can see that he has evolved greatly as an actor since his early roles in Disney’s The Amanda Show and Drake & Josh. Luke Shapiro could have easily been a stereotypical 90’s hip-hop drug dealer, but there’s so much more to this character. He’s sensitive, shy, and far more interesting than the film leads the audience to believe in the beginning. Luke’s relationship with Stephanie is brilliantly portrayed, and feels incredibly real throughout their time together. The end of the film features one of the most touching lines I’ve ever heard, delivered by Peck. Academy Award winning actor Ben Kingsley (Gandhi, Sexy Beast) portrays Shapiro’s incredibly troubled psychiatrist, and he delivers a phenomenal performance in the film. Squires’ personal life is given quite a bit of screen-time throughout, and it’s every bit as interesting as Luke’s story. At times the character seems rather uneven and over-exaggerated, which could possibly turn off some viewers. Overall, Jonathan Levine’s very talented direction and screenplay combined with a phenomenal soundtrack and great performances by the principal cast make The Wackness something truly unique. If you’re looking for touching coming-of-age stories, this one is for you. 8.5/10.