Ways of Dealing

As far as indie films go, 'The Wackness' is competent entertainment--but nothing special

A teenager in the '90s spends his last summer before college listening to Biggie Smalls, selling pot out of an ice cream cooler and trying to get laid.

The Wackness, a coming-of-age film with a few original twists, isn't groundbreaking, but it is a decent showcase for young performers Josh Peck and Olivia Thirlby. It also appears to be the most fun Ben Kingsley has had in years.

Amidst family strife, Luke Shapiro (Peck) is trying to sell enough drugs to pay for school and help his hapless family with rent. One of his best customers is Dr. Squires (Kingsley), a psychiatrist who dispenses therapy sessions in exchange for dimebags. Luke is becoming a bit anxious in the sexuality department, and the doctor's stepdaughter, Stephanie (Thirlby), has caught his eye.

Writer-director Jonathan Levine does a nice job of showcasing the talents of Peck and Thirlby, who are picture-perfect as a teenage couple with too much change on the horizon to become totally serious. Luke, of course, falls hard for the beautiful Stephanie. Stephanie, meanwhile, primarily sees the value of a good party and a lack of commitment.

Neither character comes off as a cliché in any way. Peck gives Luke an awkward combination of sadness and confidence, in possession of plenty of street smarts but hapless in romantic situations. Stephanie is a heartbreaker, but she possesses a reasonable level of doubt and confusion, which Thirlby (who you might remember as Juno's best friend) displays beautifully.

The film goes totally gonzo regarding the relationship between Dr. Squires and Luke, who find themselves out on the town, hitting bars and smoking weed. Squires is in the death throes of his marriage to Kristin (Famke Janssen), and he's looking to commit infidelity. He almost gets his chance with hippie-chick Union (Mary-Kate Olsen, in a rather lame cameo).

Squires disapproves of Luke hanging around with his daughter. His angst involving their coupling seems to be equal parts him not wanting his daughter hanging out with a drug dealer, and him not wanting his drug-dealer friend getting hurt by his selfish daughter. It's a funny situation, and Kingsley deals with it wonderfully. He has an especially good scene in which his stoned ass gets busted for tagging. (Whereas Luke has an artistic scrawl, Squires marks his graffiti with a perfectly legible personal signature.)

Levine, with the help of cinematographer Petra Korner, does an excellent job of capturing the spirit of New York City in '94. Having spent time there in the early '90s, I can tell you that the duo truly catches NYC's cool and grungy vibe. A soundtrack including the likes of Tupac and A Tribe Called Quest also helps. I especially got a kick out of the characters' constant whining about Mayor Rudy Giuliani and his crusade to clean up Manhattan's streets.

Expect big things from Thirlby, who has been showing up in a lot of movies in the last couple of years. She followed up her funny turn in Juno with fine work in David Gordon Green's Snow Angels, and now this. You'll see Peck and Thirlby together again in Jonathan Glatzer's Safety Glass.

The Wackness is representative of the kind of independent films we got this summer: It's competent, but nothing extraordinary. The year's been good for superhero and R-rated comedy movies, yet slim on the deep stuff. The Wackness is as good as it got for indie-spirit films this past summer, and that's not necessarily high praise.

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