Set for no apparent reason in 1994, Jonathan Levine’s The Wackness at first comes off like a calculated exercise in nostalgia, full of forced period details (Nintendo Game Boys, Reebok Pumps, references to 90210) that add nothing to the story and serve only to remind viewers who were teens in 1994 that, hey, you used to think this stuff was cool.
From that inauspicious start, the film turns out to be a remarkably successful coming-of-age story, putting an entertaining spin on a familiar tale and benefiting from some strong, diverse performances. It doesn’t capture anything particularly unique to being a teenager in the ’90s, but, like Richard Linklater’s ’70s-set Dazed and Confused, it proves more that being a teenager in any era is just about the same.
Nickelodeon star Josh Peck is a long way from kid-friendly territory as the foul-mouthed Luke, a drug-dealing high-schooler who has one last carefree summer before heading off to a mediocre college. Only, his summer isn’t shaping up to be all that carefree—his parents are having money problems, and he’s hopelessly in love with Stephanie (Olivia Thirlby), the stepdaughter of his pothead therapist/best friend Dr. Squires (Ben Kingsley). Over the course of three months, Luke loses his virginity, gets his heart broken, discovers the Notorious B.I.G. and sells lots and lots of weed.
It’s not the world’s most original plot, but Levine invests it with warmth and a realistic sense of teenage life. Luke’s conflicted relationship with his parents, unfocused romantic yearning and ambition to do something worthwhile, even if he doesn’t know what that is, are all easily identifiable to anyone who’s dealt with the perils of adolescence. It may be ridiculous at first to hear Jewish, Upper East Side Manhattanite Luke speak in hip-hop slang, but it quickly becomes clear that, like most teenagers, he’s just putting on a front to emulate the people he idolizes.
He manages to let his guard down for Stephanie, and Thirlby turns out to be the movie’s secret weapon, bringing the same appealing emotional openness to her role that she exhibited as the only good thing about David Gordon Green’s overwrought Snow Angels. It’s easy to believe her both as a mysterious object of desire and an insecure teen who’s as unsure of herself in her own way as Luke is. Peck’s performance sometimes seems a little sleepy and underplayed compared to his co-stars, but that shyness and reticence represents very recognizable teenage behavior.
Kingsley, who is apparently no longer capable of returning from over the top, actually benefits from hamming it up like crazy as Dr. Squires, who provides a nicely cynical counterpoint to Luke’s teenage moodiness. He does get a few quiet moments with an underused Famke Janssen as his icy trophy wife, but their relationship is not as well-developed as the one between Luke and Stephanie (plus, Kingsley puts more gusto into his one make-out scene with Mary-Kate Olsen as a hippie-dippy client of Luke’s). Most importantly, Squires effectively illustrates the movie’s strongest, most resonant message: that no matter how old you get, or what year you live in, your teen years never really end.