'Wackness' comes of age

Yarn about young adults in 1994 is poignant, gritty

Review B+

August 01, 2008|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,Sun movie critic

The Wackness is a funny, touching mood piece about a New York City high-school grad named Luke (Josh Peck) and marijuana dealer who spends three months before college trading dope for therapy with his shrink (Ben Kingsley) and falling in love with the shrink's stepdaughter Stephanie (Olivia Thirlby). It's set in the summer of '94, and underneath its jiving, wise-cracking surface, it's the cousin of Summer of '42, a previous generation's male fantasy of losing virginity to a beautiful and understanding woman.

What makes The Wackness a lot sharper is that Thirlby isn't an "older woman," and she doesn't think she has to love a boy to have sex with him. The movie honors the antihero's romantic yearnings without wallowing in them. If his dream girl moves him in ways he can't move her, he's still grateful for the feelings she stirs up in him.

I've always thought the great theme of adolescent literature is how a boy or girl or man or woman learns to wrest the truth from unlikely and undependable sources. That's what this whole movie is about. The writer-director, Jonathan Levine, is no master of pacing and contrast, but the period music on the soundtrack gives the film some hip and hop, and his quester's soul breaks through the meandering narrative.

As a shrink who can't separate his own mid-life crisis from his patient's crisis of young adulthood, Kingsley pours on the intensity, but his performance pays off in a calm, eloquent climactic scene with his equally unhappy wife (Famke Janssen). Mary-Kate Olsen brings off her cameo as a free spirit named Union, but Jane Adams takes supporting-actor honors as a city woman who's both lonely and hopeful. And Thirlby and Peck are perfect together in their Fire Island idyll - tender as well as tremulous, even when the sex is embarrassing or bad. Levine's hero is the kind of guy who likes to savor his experiences in his mind. His gritty-lyric sensibility is what makes The Wackness memorable.

michael.sragow@baltsun.com

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The Wackness

(Sony Pictures Classics) Ben Kingsley, Famke Janssen, Josh Peck, Mary-Kate Olsen. Written and directed by Jonathan Levine. Rated R for drug use, language and some sexuality. Time 110 minutes.

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