I love explaining the premise of The Wackness: Josh Peck exchanges weed for therapy sessions with Ben Kingsley. It really is as good as it sounds — actually, it’s better. Overlooked and underrated, The Wackness offers gorgeous cinematography, an amazing soundtrack, and strong performances by every member of the cast. But most importantly, it’s a coming-of-age film that feels true. Its depictions of youth leak like an open wound in the best possible way.
Summer doesn’t officially start for me until I’ve re-watched The Wackness, which takes place in the summer of ‘94, in a New York where Giuliani still reigns king. (“Fuckin’ Giuliani!” the characters lament throughout the film.) Josh Peck’s character, Luke Shapiro, has just graduated high school and waits in the purgatory known as the summer before college. Luke deals weed to earn money for school, bumps Nas and A Tribe Called Quest, and falls for Squires’ stepdaughter, the aloof and all-too-cool-girl Stephanie (played by Olivia Thirlby). In between, he sees Dr. Jeffrey Squires to talk about his depression. “Does this have anything to do with Kurt Cobain?” Squires asks him at one point.
Squires, however, has his own shit to deal with — a failing marriage, a midlife crisis and arrested development, proving that all of the answers don’t necessarily come with age.
The Wackness is a capsule of two places in time; New York in the early 90s, and the more nebulous, yet relatable, realm of post-adolescence. It captures both perfectly. It evokes a nostalgia for 90s NYC as fully and as equally as the universal memory of being 18, and the former self we all once inhabited.
The entire movie hinges on this nostalgia, and it feels almost tangible: the sizzling pavement of a hot summer day in the city. The snap of a mixtape sliding into a Walkman. Faith Evans’ “You Used to Love Me” floating out of a boombox (is there any better song for sultry summer nights?). The golden hour of the late afternoon sun. The shake and hiss of a spray-paint bottle, the spread of graffiti. The palpable sweatbox of a New York high-rise. The ring of a pager, the clink of a payphone.
Most of all, The Wackness reflects the certain magic of summer and its feeling of infinite possibility, despite its finite end. And end it does. New York’s transition echoes the characters own, as they kick and scream through the shift of a time of unrestrained freedom to one of accountability.
To me, it’s a near-perfect film; take my faithful yearly rewatches as a testament to its quality. Luke Shapiro is one of the most winsome protagonists in recent memory. If nothing else, watch it just to see Ben Kingsley quoting Biggie’s “The What,” without missing a beat. But it’s a movie that you watch to bask in a certain feeling, and you’d be remiss not to dwell in it for a while.