Film director celebrates 1994

The Wackness
Ben Kingsley and Josh Peck star in "The Wackness." It's the story of two lost souls in New York City in 1994.
Image courtesy Sony Pictures Classics

It was hot in New York City in the summer of 1994. Hip-hop was becoming mainstream. People played it loudly from the ghetto blasters even as the new mayor, Rudy Giuliani, tried to clamp down with anti-noise laws.

This is the city where 17-year-old Luke Shapiro is contemplating his future.

"Tomorrow I graduate, and then I go to my safety school, and then I get older and then I die," Shapirod says early in the film.

Peck and Levine
Josh Peck and Jonathan Levine worked together on "The Wackness." Peck stars as a dope-peddling teenager who is struggling against depression. Levine wrote and directed the film.
MPR photo/Euan Kerr

Luke, played by Josh Peck, is depressed. In Luke's world, "wack" means lame, and he sees his life filled with "the wackness."

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Never popular in high school, Luke has few friends now, and his parents are constantly fighting. He's desperate to find a girlfriend. He makes money selling dope out of an old ice-cream trolley he pushes around the park.

Luke decides he needs help and goes to a psychiatrist, Dr. Squires. Played by Oscar-winning actor Ben Kingsley, it turns out that Squires has as many problems as Luke, perhaps more. He tries to alleviate those problems by smoking the pot Luke gives him as payment for his therapy sessions.

"I've been thinking about your dilemma a lot recently, Luke," Squires says in one scene.

"What's my dilemma?" Luke asks.

"[Ben Kingsley] said he was really impressed by the tenderness of it, which is not something that jumps off the page when it's a movie about two guys smoking weed."

"The girl thing," Squires says. "Luke, when I went to school, drug dealers had no problem getting girls. In fact, that's why I wanted to be one."

"Were you popular in high school, Dr. Squires?"

"Well, I wouldn't say popular. No," Squire sighs.

In time, Squires joins his young patient in the dope-dealing business, and hits on Luke's female friends.

"They make terrible decisions, you know, and they don't always do the right thing. In fact, they often do the worst possible thing they could," says director Jonathan Levine.

Levine wrote the script, and says while the film isn't autobiographical, he does identify with the characters.

This is Levine's second film. His first, a teen horror flick, did well on the festival circuit, but hasn't been released yet.

"The Wackness" is drawing attention because of Ben Kingsley's involvement. Levine describes when he learned Kingsley would join the cast as a moment of pure joy.

"The first thing he said to me was he was really impressed by the tenderness of it, which is not something that jumps off the page when it's a movie about, in many ways, two guys smoking weed. Tenderness might not be the thing that you would think of," Levine says.

Levine and his other star, Josh Peck, say while they were initially intimidated to have the man who played Gandhi on their set, Kingsley went out of his way to put them at ease.

Kingsley and Peck
Ben Kingsley as Dr. Jeff Squires and Josh Peck as Luke Shapiro. In "The Wackness," Shapiro pays Squires for his therapy sessions with bags of pot.
Image courtesy Sony Pictures Classics

Peck, who made a name for himself as a clean-cut child star of the "Drake and Josh" TV show on the Nickelodeon channel, says Kingsley treated everyone as equals. Peck says, however, Kingsley also stressed the importance of honing the craft of acting.

"I said, 'Does it get any easier after an Academy Award, and 50 movies, and being brilliant in every one?'" Peck says. "And he said, 'No. Absolutely not, doesn't get any easier. Not if you are trying to be great every time, not if you are going for emotional truth, and something that is going to resonate and elicit emotion in an audience.'"

Peck says Kingsley talked about going to the dark places in the human psyche, the places that most people shut off if they can, to give audiences a glimpse what Kingsley calls the mess of human life.

All of the characters in "The Wackness" are damaged in some way, from Josh and Dr. Squires to Steff, the girl Josh loves. Josh's relationship with Steff is complicated because she is also Squires' stepdaughter.

The film is funny but pain-filled, too. Director Josh Levine says he thinks a lot of people will relate.

"Hopefully it kind of reminds them of that summer when they were a teenager, and they got their heart broken or they were lost," Levine says. "And that for me is the biggest thing, is that it kind of brings people back."

Director Jonathan Levine says "The Wackness" is a movie without explosions and special effects, and at this time of a blockbuster-filled summer, he thinks that's a good thing.