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Street Drugs Pocketguide
by Lou Savelli
(New paperback from Amazon)
. "The Wackness"

This period coming-of-age drama cuts a groove for itself within a genre that tends toward the overdone or the trying-too-hard to be different. In this case, the effort pays off with some amusement and the considerable chemistry imparted by the players. It remains attractive despite some tedium, stylistic overstretching and the feeling we've been in this neighborhood before, which most of us have.

Branded as a loser in high school, Luke Shapiro (Josh Peck) is approaching graduation with three things in his life. There's the family, which is going through the pains of... (you thought I was going to say divorce) an eviction from their New York apartment because dad hasn't been able to come up with the rent; there's his shrink, Dr. Squires, whom he pays in ganga weed until a tight "hang out" relationship evolves despite generational differences; and there's his drug business, which he operates on the streets out of a two-wheeled ice cream cart.

But the worst part of it is life, for Luke. When pushed, he slyly admits to his therapist in the sanctity of private privilege, that he's been depressed and feels so uncool. Like, no girlfriend, no relationships that could count as a life.

Squires, a not-so-slightly bizarre and unrestrained, cliche'-ridden practitioner of his discipline, tries to work on that for his client's benefit, going to "you need to get laid" as the immediate priority for Luke's stability and wholeness. Unfortunately for Squires, his problems are as bad as any of his clients' and we find him in a marriage with a wife (Famke Janssen) that is loveless bordering on contempt.

But, Squires daughter Stephanie (Olivia Thirlby) is something else. What love there should be in the household is pretty much directed at her, as is a father's instinct to protect his offspring.

If only he knew where she's been and what she's been doing, and with whom. Let's just say that Stephanie doesn't share Luke's problem. She's hot and travels in the older, faster school crowd. Never had much interest in the quiet geniality of sad, reticent guys like Luke, with his speech affectation based on rap music. But it's summer, and the usual diversions are thin to non-existent, driving this babe toward love-starvation. Even if it means Luke. At least she's taking a new look.

At first mesmerized by Luke's drug dealing operation, she develops a whole new evaluation of him when he takes her on a "day-in-the-life" tour of the drug biz. What she realizes is what we've already observed, that Luke is a very comfortable, seemingly self assured, young man with an appeal all his own. She leaves her phone numbers on him with a "call me." It leads to a weekend at the Squires' Fire Island getaway house when her parents are off to their own makeup getaway in Barbados.

Luke finally learns what its like to be cool, to be the object of a babe's interest and affection. To be... initiated to manhood. To fall in love. To be rejected by an ice princess to whom a weekend of lust is a temporary diversion.

Totally disillusioned, hurt and heartbroken, Luke's problems enter a whole new dimension. What with Stephanie's ignoring him after the big weekend of constant intimacy and his need to make a pile of money in a hurry in order to help his father avoid eviction and banishment to the grandparents in New Jersey. All a part of reality, odd pairings, and growing up during a hot, wacky summer in the city.

As it turns out, Luke may be, by this time, the most mature of anyone we've seen, including his parents, her parents, and not a few of his drug clientele. But with all the elements at work here, which might easily stray into a case of hipness and drug delirium, the story holds a steadfast fascination with how it will affect our hurt, affable central character. Much credit for the steady interest goes certainly to writer-director Jonathan Levine and to his cast choices.

And, most of all, to Josh Peck whose modesty is of the type that makes people underestimate his general worthiness. He's a contrast against those in his social orbit who turn assumed superiority into superficiality. He isn't the loser he thought he was.

After her appearance as the femme sidekick to Ellen Page's Juno in "Juno," Thirlby surprises here as a girl that has "it." No question, this actress smolders, with all the sensual instincts that turn men to jelly. Major teener siren. Perfect for the part and effective as an icon for that girl whom some men got deeply involved with in their teenage past, but could not quite hold onto.

With a script that must have been designed to exploit his creative gift for wack humor through character, Sir Ben Kingley shows part of his acting palette and taste for the out-of-the-box goofball that again demonstrates the fun he can make with the kind of range that keeps him employed. One of his rewards is a telephone booth hump scene with a street honey called Union, energetically played by a playful Mary-Kate Olsen who suggests to me a teenage version of Drea de Matteo.

Attention to the technical side of filmmaking is well represented in all departments with cinematographer Petra Korner's lighting at times moody and deeply inspired, in particular, by the dense atmosphere of the therapist's office which she turns into a sanctum of mystery.

The main problem in an otherwise well observed personal drama is the freakoid nature of his role and the relationship between boy and shrink that never quite fits the realistic tone of the rest of the film. It feels to me like rewrites came along to attract Kingsley for marquee value and the part was juiced up to give equal time to a pushy secondary character and create a questionable imbalance, inspiring the pushy, meaningless title.

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Josh Peck is Luke
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