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3rd December 2013

Contrary Corner: Waxing on The Wackness

Zach Fuller bigs up an underrated and overshadowed gem from 2008, starring Ben Kingsley and Mary Kate Olsen

If your film didn’t have Batman, then 2008 was a hard year to get noticed. Blanket press appraisal of The Dark Knight overshadowed much of the year’s cinematic output, and this coming of age drama was one of the Joker’s many victims left hanging in the nosebleed section. Puzzled expressions continue to greet the unfamiliar indie in my favourite films. It’s become like my delinquent child who secretly hides a heart of gold, and reacting as if it’s the last straw at a stressful parent’s evening, I find myself fiercely defending this roguish little misfit’s questionable outside appearance. I get it. Funny title, few critic lists, and it doesn’t help my case that the main character is an alarmingly thinner version of the loudmouth cherub from Drake and Josh. Swift smartphone searches that reveal its considerable distance from the Shawshank summit of IMDB further hurt claims for its greatness, but The Wackness struck something special when I first saw it in a dingy South-London Odeon, my friend and I composing half of the total audience.

Amidst the sticky summer streets of 90’s NYC, pre 9/11 and post Wu-Tang Clan, roams a lonely weed dealer named Luke Shapiro (Josh Peck). Shapiro has recently graduated High School, and is quietly going about his risky occupation for the endless weeks until College, when he begins to deal to an eccentric psychiatrist in exchange for therapy sessions. Enter Dr Squires (Sir Ben Kingsley), a welcome ear to Shapiro’s problems yet ill equipped to be imparting advice, as he is secretly self-medicating to handle a flourishing mid-life-crisis. However, the pair’s dilemmas provide the impetus for an unlikely friendship, where they begin to bond over a mutual dissatisfaction with life. This is particularly with regards to their troubled and often mirrored dealings with the opposite sex, as their burgeoning friendship coincides with Squire’s loveless marriage and Shapiro’s dicey infatuation with Stephanie, Squire’s stepdaughter.

In the present age of rigid consensus over what’s considered acceptably brilliant, this film was something rare; something fortuitously unearthed instead of aggressively enforced. It was a snapshot of adolescence far removed from any of British TV’s offerings at the time: the cartoon hedonism of Skins or the unabashed goofiness of The Inbetweeners. Though it follows well-trodden ground in dealing with the familiar themes of heartache and increasing responsibility, Peck and Kingsley’s effortless chemistry lifts this film above the more predictable crowd. Their musings on life are so thickly etched into my memory that revisiting their scenes feels like I’m in the company of old friends, and the film’s lesson of dramatic action when life grows stale has continued to ring true in the years since I left that deserted Odeon. In the gloomiest of British winters, this story of love, blunts and the benefits of bad choices remains strangely comforting.

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