20 July 2008

At the movies: The Wackness.

New York. 1994. The summer of Rudolph Giuliani’s crackdowns, the summer of Wu-Tang and Biggie and Nas, the summer of heatwaves and Forrest Gump. This is where Jonathan Levine’s film The Wackness unfolds, giving us recent High School graduate Luke Shapiro (Josh Peck), a small-time pot dealer trying to figure his life out before college changes everything. His only real confidant is his therapist, Dr. Squires (Ben Kingsley), and his only outlet for all he has going on in his mind is the music- and the sounds are spot-on. This film understands the way hip-hop speaks to countless different emotions and circumstances, and it does so effortlessly, without shoehorning any grand statements into its breezily blunted dialogue.

Peck is a near-revelation here, maintaining macho defensiveness and an aching sensitivity in his scenes, finding the depth in what could easily be one of the most clichéd and excruciating character types in film- the business-minded manchild. He holds things together while his family life falls apart. And Kingsley, for the first time in what seems like decades, isn’t completely embarrassing. In the supporting cast, we have treasures Jane Adams and Famke Janssen, as well as a likably daffy Mary Kate Olsen as a hippie rich girl.

There are countless little moments of magic. One involves a blitzed Luke coming home, struck goofy with a case of teenage love, and his mother’s response, delivered with the sincerest mesh of empathy and envy, is to ask if he’d like her to make him a sandwich, to which he beams his assent with the most genuine and disarming grin. Another find Luke sitting on the beach, watching his crush Stephanie (Olivia Thirlby, from Juno) swim, trying to work up what he’s going to say to her, working through several options before plaintively saying “I wanna, like, listen to Boyz II Men when I’m with you,” and as the viewer your heart just sort of falls out of your chest at how (stylized but still) honest the moment feels.

Levine understands the effective subtleties of filmmaking – Luke’s solipsism is reflected in the way that the city is photographed, as we only see him truly amongst the teeming masses of New York City when he is shown to be isolated (via headphones or behind objects). By allowing most of his screen time to unfold in more intimate circumstances (while still obviously being on the actual streets of New York), Levine expresses the selective focus of invincible youth, and it isn’t until long after the film ends that you realize how expertly you were brought into Luke’s physical space. A beachfront love scene uses sunlight almost like a participant in the lovemaking; stylistically, you could call The Wackness the Brundlefly child of James Toback’s Black & White and Frank Perry’s Last Summer. Between this and his first film (The to-be-released in August All the Boys Love Mandy Lane), I am more than willing to watch anything Jonathan Levine comes up with from here on out.

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