Like "Donnie Darko," "Thumbsucker" and a few others, "The Wackness" treads the familiar teenage male terrain with assurance and distinction.

The Amerindie annals are over-full of withdrawn male loners hoping to quirk or cathart themselves out of teenage purgatory. But like “Donnie Darko,” “Thumbsucker” and a few others, “The Wackness” treads this familiar terrain with assurance and distinction. Director-scenarist Jonathan Levine’s first feature, the mannered slasher opus “All the Boys Love Mandy Lane,” attracted inexplicable buy-buzz at the 2006 Toronto fest yet still hasn’t opened theatrically. His second effort reps a considerable leap forward and should have far less trouble getting seen. Marketing toward viewers who came of age in the mid-’90s would help it avoid the classic Sundance hit/arthouse dud scenario; ancillary prospects are bright.

At first glance, it doesn’t look like it’s going to be much fun being around Luke Shapiro, who’s graduating high school in 1994 NYC. He flaunts that era’s annoying “wigger” speech–”I’m mad depressed, yo,” he tells his shrink. Socially isolated and without a girlfriend, he deals marijuana out of an ice cream cart in Manhattan and for a brief while seems like an insipid hiphop-worshipping white juvenile’s fantasy of how dope it would be to be, like, sorta-kinda gangsta.

But for all the vintage hiphop tracks well-utilized here, “The Wackness” isn’t an exercise in wannabe outcast (or is that Outkast?) coolness. Luke’s problems are echoed and amplified by everyone around him. His parents (Talia Balsam, David Wohl) are constantly at each others’ throats, mostly over money matters that might get them all evicted from their Upper East Side apartment.

Aforementioned shrink Dr. Squires (Ben Kingsley) is also a client of Luke’s–paid in green bud, not greenbacks–who offers highly dubious advice, perhaps wanting to live out a vicarious second-chance horny youth through his patient. His own love life with trophy wife Kristin (Famke Janssen) has turned freezing cold. While highly medicated himself, he tells the lad, “You don’t need medication, you need to get laid.” This aged rock ‘n’ roll Lothario turns hypocritically disapproving, however, when Luke reveals the one girl he’s really stuck on is his classmate Stephanie (Olivia Thirlby), Doc’s own worldly, popular stepdaughter.

All her friends away for the summer, a hitherto standoffish Stephanie suddenly exhibits very friendly interest in Luke. When Doc and wife try to make up via a Barbados getaway, the younger couple repair to the elders’ empty Fire Island cottage. Luke’s inexperience is amusingly and credibly depicted as classic Bad Firsttime Sex…though he proves a fast learner.

These twin sojourns surpass everyone’s expectations, yet their aftermath is sobering. “The Wackness” continues through a final act whose requisite growing-up-means-painful-lessons content is adroitly handled in a mix of outrageous behavior and melancholy resignation. In the end, pic’s central relationship isn’t between the young leads, but between Luke and the psychiatrist several times his senior–unlikely friends who both have some maturing to do, and prove oddly adept at nudging each other in that direction.

Kingsley has a ball with Squires’ gonzo character, getting a bizarre makeout session with none other than Mary-Kate Olsen as a barely-legal Central Park hippie chick. Jane Adams also makes an impression as another pot buyer who clicks with the doctor. Janssen doesn’t get a lot to do, but Thirlby is appealing as a girl both precociously assured and uncertain what she wants. While Peck somewhat oversells the open-mouthed, glaze-eyed stoner act, he’s nonetheless a most appealing protagonist.

Design contribs are very well turned, with Petra Korner’s desaturated widescreen lensing, Josh Noyes’ diverse editorial approaches, David Torn’s ethereal original score and other contribs conveying the characters’ emotional precariousness during a Manhattan heatwave summer.

The Wackness

Production

An Occupant Films and SBK Entertainment production. Produced by Keith Calder, Felipe Marino, Joe Neurauter. Co-producer, Brian Udovich. Directed, written by Jonathan Levine. Camera (color, widescreen), Petra Korner; editor, Josh Noyes; music, David Torn; music supervisor, Jim Black; production designer, Annie Spitz

Crew

Costume designer, Michael Clancy; sound (Dolby Digital), Ken Ishii; assistant director, Paul Epstein; casting, Joanna Colbert, Richard Mento. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (competing), Jan. 18, 2008. Running time: 110 MIN.

With

Ben Kingsley, Josh Peck, Famke Janssen, Olivia Thirlby, Mary-Kate Olsen, Jane Adams, Method Man, Aaron Yoo, Talia Balsam, David Wohl, Bob Dishy, Joanne Merlin.

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