Back in the days when I was a teenager
Before I had status and before I had a pager
You could find the Abstract listenin' to hip-hop
My pops used to say it reminded him of bebop.
— "Excursions," A Tribe Called Quest
It's the summer of 1994. New York City private-school teenager and pot dealer Luke Shapiro (Josh Peck) has a pager, all right, but he sure doesn't have any status. He doesn't have any friends, either — his only confidant is his psychiatrist and client, Dr. Jeff Squires (Ben Kingsley). Luke is cute and intelligent, but his thoughtfulness often looks and sounds like stoned slowness. He's never had a girlfriend, although something may be brewing with Dr. Squires' stepdaughter Stephanie (Olivia Thirlby).
Like a lot of urban-suburban white kids, Luke is more lonesome than depressed, and he combats his loneliness by immersing himself in hip-hop — the great 1990s hip-hop of the Native Tongues movement, Biggie Smalls, and the Wu-Tang Clan. Jonathan Levine's The Wackness is much more than a pitch-perfect time capsule; it's a coming-of-age story that's preternaturally wise about music, sex, and teenagers.
Initially, Luke's road to maturity and wisdom is hard to follow because Dr. Squires is such a strange, shifting guide, one who's barely beyond adolescence in his own emotional development. Plus, Luke and Squires' path is heavily strewn with 1990s signposts and gestures: Writing phone numbers on paper (rather than punching them into cell phones), grumbling about douche-bag mayor Rudy Giuliani, snorting Ritalin, and walking past Kurt Cobain memorials, Forrest Gump posters, Mary-Kate Olsen (only here she's all grown up), and the World Trade Center are all part of Levine's pop-cultural diorama.
These references aren't held up for ridicule or cheap sentiment; they perform the same necessary function as the cigarette-smoking and three-martini lunches do in the terrific TV series Mad Men. They capture the mystery and fragility of the recent past.
The use of music throughout The Wackness — songs like Nas' "The World Is Yours," Raekwon's "Heaven and Hell", the Notorious B.I.G.'s "The What," and, best of all, a Tribe Called Quest's "Can I Kick It" — is also enlightening rather than nostalgic. What's most amazing about these superbly chosen hip-hop tracks is the now-unmistakable air of tragedy and loss they all share. In a beautiful shift and stretch, though, the film's romantic pinnacle turns on a visual cue to an '80s song: After his first kiss, the concrete blocks under Luke's feet light up à la Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean" video.
But as great as his musical allusions are, Levine's handling of adolescent sex, shown through scenes that are tender and erotic without tumbling into exploitive jailbait fantasies, is even better. Stephanie is compassionate and understanding about the mechanics and (male) malfunctions of sex, but she's not at all willing to deal with the messier emotional aftershocks. Her response to Luke's declaration of love is a sudden, harsh "Whoa, dude." It's a tribute to The Wackness that Stephanie's response is not portrayed as a condemnation of teenage girls. Like so much in this movie, it turns out to be strangely sweet and right.
Opening Friday, August 1st