One of the worst things you can say to a teenager is, "These are the best years of your life." If for nothing else, screenwriter-director Jonathan Levine's The Wackness deserves points for understanding that all too well.
This '90s outsider teen flick is smart, well-acted, emotionally genuine and boasts a soundtrack that deserves mad props. But it's nothing we haven't seen before, a mix of urban coming-of-age films that valiantly tries to avoid indie-movie clichés but just can't seem to help itself.
It's the summer of 1994 and Rudy Giuliani is about to turn New York City into the biggest mall in America. High school grad Luke (Josh Peck) is raising money for college by dealing pot out of an old ice-cream cart. The "most popular of the unpopular," he struggles with all the hallmarks of teen angst: drugs, girls, troubled parents and an inability to connect with peers. Trading pot for therapy, he strikes up a friendship with his pill-popping therapist, Jeff Squires (Ben Kingsley), who advises that he embrace his pain and live each moment to the fullest. Of course, he also offers brilliant nuggets like, "Try and fuck a black girl. I never got to." When Luke develops eyes for Squires' popular stepdaughter Stephanie (Juno's Olivia Thirlby), things get complicated.
Predictably, every character in The Wackness is damaged and quirky, often slipping into dialogue that's more screenplay-clever than authentically human. Which is fine for something as self-consciously hip as Juno. But Levine seems to want more resonance than that, which may be The Wackness' biggest problem. And the film's monochromatic gritty tone, Luke's heart-on-his-sleeve innocence, Squires' maudlin travails with his wife (a chain-smoking Famke Jensen) gives up more pretension than substance.
Levine's movie is best in its earlier acts, when it gleefully indulges in dark humor and casually illicit behavior. Kingsley and Peck make a terrific team, humorously bouncing off their generational differences to find a common source of awkwardness and insecurity. Their unspoken reactions to various comments and situations in the film have an unpolished genuineness that draws you in and diverts you from a plot that could've been stamped from the urban-teen romance mill.
While its '90s affectations are equally self-conscious and ineffective (Zima and The Legend of Zelda, anyone?), the film's gloriously emotive hip-hop boom-box soundtrack zeroes in on the era's awkwardness, irony and lack of identity. It may sound odd, but the music of the Notorious B.I.G., Tupac and a Tribe Called Quest injects the film with a uniquely urban sense of longing and romanticism, building to Levine's cinematic triumph: Luke's "Billy Jean"-inspired sidewalk dance of joy.
Simultaneously urbane and naive, The Wackness tries, with intermittent success, to contrast the Disney-fication of urban authenticity against the struggle for adolescent identity. Sometimes moving, at other times false, there's no doubting Levine's sincerity. How you feel about the film will ultimately depend on whether you focus on its dopeness or its wackness. But seeing Mary-Kate Olsen play a dope-smoking barely legal lap bunny to Kingsley's dirty old man is pretty dope.
Showing at the Main Art Theatre, 118 N. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-263-2111.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.