Deeper Into Movies: "The Wackness" (2008)

Courtesy of Occupant Films / Sony Pictures Classics

I saw The Wackness on Sunday, mostly because I’d heard there was a scene where Mary-Kate Olsen and Gandhi make out. I heard right; it was awesome. But the movie was really about teen angst, and though it’s set in 1994 with a New York hip-hop soundtrack and is about a high school drug dealer who makes $26,000 in a summer selling weed in Manhattan, loners of all locations, musical bents and substance abuse problems should find much to relate to.

The lead character is a misanthropic Jew (well, probably – dude’s name is Luke Shapiro, played with ease by a greasy-haired Josh Peck) who loves A Tribe Called Quest and lusts after his psychiatrist/weed client Dr. Squire’s step-daughter. Gandhi (Sir Ben Kingsley, natch) plays the psychiatrist, enthusiastically going through a midlife bender that’d make Hunter S. Thompson proud and trading sessions with Luke for dime-bags. Bluntly, his life’s a mess. Shapiro’s isn’t much better, not with warring parents and a friendless last summer at home to look forward to.

Despite the gloom it’s a surprisingly funny movie, though there’s not much of a happy ending: dude gets the girl, loses her, and doesn’t want her back, which does make for a pretty great coming-of-age arc. Especially since I didn’t anticipate him actually getting the girl (a blithe Olivia Thirlby [Juno], who looks like Rachel McAdam’s little sister and plays a slightly more innocent variation of Anne Hathaway’s detached party girl from the straight-to-video classic Havoc). The movie balances comedy and quiet suburban tragedy well; even a third act suicide attempt has real laughs attached. The cinematography is bleak and urban but not gritty, favoring student-film soft-focus shots — a too-easy metaphor for disconnect, but one the film doesn’t abuse.

Refreshingly, The Wackness eschews dumb pot jokes and also any mention of race: Luke, a white dude who listens to hip-hop, moves and sells weed among whites, blacks and Asians with equal aplomb. A blurry, rose-colored look at 1994? Yes, but a clear-eyed take on being 18, on that horrible summer between high school and college when hearts break, popular kids start turning grey and losers learn to get born again.