Full disclosure: I have never smoked pot. Not once. Not even in college. I also don’t listen to rap. And in 1994, I was an 8-year old, watching David the Gnome and eating peanut butter sandwiches with my baby-sitter. The Wackness, about a teenage pot dealer living in New York City in 1994, might as well be about the goddamned emperor of 17th century China to me—it’s a period piece, a fantasy, rather than a film that inspires any nostalgia in me. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy it.
The Wackness is filmed with soft lighting that captures the fuzziness of Luke Shapiro, a quiet, sweet 18-year old drug dealer with half-lidded eyes and the weight of post-high school apathy on his shoulders. It’s appropriate that Josh Peck, formally the fat sidekick of Nickelodeon’s Drake and Josh, plays Luke. Peck is all grown up here—he’s lost a bunch of weight and is really, really cute, but he still has the vulnerability of an “inner fatty”. An “inner fatty” is someone, fat or thin, who is just a tad self-conscious, self-deprecating, and unsure of him or herself. Someone who values being funny, smart, or generous over being popular and cool—because an inner fatty doesn’t truly believe that he or she is capable of being cool. Unlike those “inner skinnies”, who are narcissistic, wildly outgoing, vain, and selfish (or at least I, an inner fatty, like to think so. Fuck those skinnies! Let’s hope they all develop a thyroid problem!). But I digress…The point is, Luke is a good guy, and refreshingly innocent for a drug dealer.
The Wackness has two simultaneous and interweaving plotlines. One is about Luke and his shrink, Dr. Squires, who trades therapy sessions for pot. Dr. Squires is having a mid-life crisis and marriage problems. He’s also trying to mentor Luke, even though he himself is in serious need of counseling. He tells Luke “Embrace your pain. Make it part of you” and then proceeds to attempt to kill himself. He doesn’t succeed, but it shows that the middle-aged doctor doesn’t know shit about dealing with pain. Dr. Squires is played by Ben Kingsley, who sports a bizarre accent—it’s sort of a mixture of British, generic American, and ‘New Yawk’ and it sounds very weird. But other than that accent, Kingsley does an excellent job of portraying an aging, dope-smoking, Mary-Kate Olsen kissing (really!) ex-hippie turned professional. Dr. Squires’ “what the fuck” attitude lets him learn as much from Luke as Luke learns from him.
The other plotline is your typical coming of age story in which Luke falls in love with Dr. Squires’ stepdaughter, Stephanie (played by Olivia Thirlby, aka Juno’s best friend in Juno). Luke really likes Stephanie and Stephanie just wants to be friends. But she also invites him to her step dad’s home in Fire Island and helps him lose his virginity, which makes for a couple really awkward scenes and one really gorgeous scene where the two kids make love in the shower—after which Luke remarks “word”. Word, indeed. If porn were made with people who looked and acted like Josh Peck and Olivia Thirlby, I’d watch a lot more of it.
Sadly for Luke, even after popping his cherry, Stephanie still only wants to be friends, if that. While Luke is practicing telling Stephanie he loves her (he says to himself “I got mad love for you, shorty. That’s on the real.”) Stephanie is maintaining a cool distance and ignoring his calls. But Stephanie isn’t portrayed as a callous, manipulative bitch—she’s just a girl who likes Luke, even enough to have sex with him, but doesn’t like him like him. We’ve all been there. On both ends. And even though Luke pursues her beyond what is reasonable, it comes off as heroic and honest, not pathetic and loser-y. At one point, he calls her from a payphone and waffles about not really meaning it when he told her he loved her. He then pauses and says “You know what? I meant it. I do love you. I’m not afraid to say it” and then proceeds to tell her that if she doesn’t love him back she can “fuck off”. I freaking loved this scene because I felt like it’s something probably everyone’s wanted to say at some point in their lives, but never got up the courage to do so. Luke is at an age, and possessed of a personality which allows him to just fucking say what he means, even if it’s embarrassing and even if it just pushes Stephanie away more. Because by admitting that he loves her “on the real”, Luke owns his feelings for her, rather than letting her have control over him. Like Dr. Squires’ encouraged, Luke is making his pain part of who he is.
The Wackness is not a very eventful film. It’s more character driven than plot driven. It’s not even particularly entertaining. But it’s sweet and sincere and feel-good. And even though I don’t smoke pot and don’t listen to rap music or hip-hop, I could easily feel what Luke was feeling and see a little of myself (or my “inner fatty”) in him. And that’s why The Wackness was more dope than wack for me.