This review was originally published during the 2008 Sundance Film Festival. A filmmaker who matters is someone capable of re-invigorating genres with spunk and a playful lack of caution. That's Jonathan Levine, who wowed the 2006 Toronto International Film Festival audiences with his gory, sly horror film "All the Boys Love Mandy Lane." His follow up is even better, the high-energy coming-of-age tale "The Wackness," a fun-loving movie that audiences will find impossible to resist.
It's the summer of 1994 and recent high school grad Luke Shapiro (Josh Peck) is about to undertake an adventure with his Manhattan psychiatrist Dr. Squires (Ben Kingsley). Luke is a self-made businessman; selling pot from a pushcart under the guise of a frozen ice vendor. He trades weed for sessions with Squires but their personal lives intersect when Squire's teenage stepdaughter (Olivia Thirlby) introduces him to romance and ultimately heartache. 1994 comes alive thanks to picture perfect period details from bus posters promoting "Forrest Gump," to clunky Walkman headphones and constant chatter about Rudy Giuliani "cleaning up New York." Cinematographer Petra Korner helps match the frantic energy of "Wackness'" teen hero with constantly moving camerawork and Levine recreates 1994 Manhattan with a sense of authentic, beautiful grime. More impressive, what makes "Wackness" something of a coming-of-tale for Levine; is the way he writes, directs and handles actors. "Wackness" is eye candy with great performances at its core.
Pretty Olivia Thirlby is something of the straight arrow of the film; the girl of Luke's dreams but someone with the least interesting lines and little growth. Josh Peck makes the film matter as Luke, believable, engaging and fully capable of making his heartache matter. Peck also matches well with Ben Kingsley who is something of a modern- day Falstaff in Luke's coming-of-age adventure. As Squires, Kingsley's gray hair curls at its tips like a space helmet. His goatee is comically psychiatrist cliche. Kingsley is larger than life in "Wackness;" over-the-top and the film is better thanks to his one-man theatrics. Mary-Kate Olsen first appears as a whirling dervish, a pampered hippie chick getting high in Central Park. But her best scene is a laugh-out-loud make out session with Kingsley in bar phone booth. Jane Adams makes the most of her cameo as one of Luke's regular customers. Famke Janssen is perfectly sour as Squires' unhappy wife. Granted, there are few surprises with "Wackness" and it offers half the laughs of "Superbad" but it remains a joy in its own right.
Levine's creative missteps are youthful so they're easily forgiven. A slow-motion subway fantasy involving pretty female passengers dissolves into a MTV parody. A fantasy where his high school yearbook comes alive never hits it comic target. Luke's narration quickly becomes redundant. Still, flaws and all, "Wackness" remains a straight-shooting, coming- of-age tale with a happy ending where it matters most -- a teenage boy's maturity into a self-respecting man. Will Levine's creative fairytale fizzle with film number three? "Wackness" says otherwise.
indieWIRE's coverage of the 2008 Sundance Film Festival is available in iW's special Park City section.