New reviews: ‘The Wackness,’ ‘Encounters at the End of the World’ and ‘Garden Party’

The Wackness (dir/scr: Jonathan Levine)

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Ben Kingsley and Josh Peck

There is a danger that The Wackness will be remembered as the film where an aging hippie of a Ben Kingsley makes out with former child star Mary-Kate Olsen (as a spacey modern flower child). But in a world of coming of age stories mired in teenage fantasies of dreamy sexual hook-ups and/or comic escapades, The Wackness, winner of the Audience Award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, is a modest but well-observed respite from the clichés. Most of them, anyway.

Luke Shapiro (Josh Peck) is dope supplier to the high-school in-crowd, the connection who is never invited to stick around and pretty much ignore when he does anyways. His appropriation of hip-hop language and culture (this kid dresses down while his affluent classmates dress up) only exaggerates his social isolation. His parents are trapped in one long, marathon argument and his family is edging toward bankruptcy.

The closest thing Luke’s got to a friend is Dr. Squires (Ben Kingsley, in a distracted monotone and a gray ponytail), a pothead psychiatrist who trades sessions for weed and advises Luke to get laid. Squires is oblivious to Luke’s crush his stepdaughter (and Luke’s sometime customer) Stephanie (Olivia Thirlby), who is more than a little intrigued by this low-key outlaw and opens the door for more when she tosses a few sardonic remarks his way.

With his sleepy eyes and slouching manner, Peck’s portrayal of Luke manages to make him both passively engaging and actively withdrawn. Squires is, if anything, more miserable than Luke, medicated to the gills on pills and dope to escape his dissolving marriage and general depression.

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Olivia Thirlby and Josh Peck

Kingsley is quite entertaining and more than a little hammy, even in a wry monotone, and his colorful doc threatens to steal the film from the gloomy Luke. But Peck is unaccountably engaging as a kid who feels so powerless in his social life that peddling marijuana on the streets of the city (often from an old ice-cream push cart) is the closest he gets empowerment. It’s more than just confidence; he’s got a fantasy that he can save his family from bankruptcy if just pushes hard enough.

Writer/director Jonathan Levine’s evocation of Giuliani’s 1994 New York City, a time of mix-tapes and hip-hop and street sweeping and a culture of divorce and social dislocation, is said to be spot on. It certainly feels organic. Levine avoids the obvious markers of the era (apart from his musical choices) as he creates a vibe of a city winding down in the sweltering heat of summer.

There’s the usual coming-of-age rituals along with some unusual moments, but under Squires’ aging hippie, trying to recapture the old rebellion in empty gestures, and Luke’s tentative steps to connection is a story that rings with the authenticity and conviction of lived experience.

I review the film for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer here.

Also reviewed this week:

Encounters at the End of the World (dir: Werner Herzog)

… the encounters in Werner Herzog’s documentary have less to do with the natural world than with the scientists, mechanics and adventurers who live in and around McMurdo Station, the biggest human settlement in Antarctica. It looks like a muddy Alaskan mining camp, but to Herzog it’s the last frontier town, built in an environment so hostile that survival training is mandatory for any trip outside. Herzog, who narrates with his familiar blend of odd humor and curious wonder, is completely taken with these “professional dreamers” and turns his project into an engaging and generous profile of the fascinating folks who have chosen to live at the end of the world.

Read the complete review here.

Garden Party (dir: Jason Freeland)

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Vinessa Shaw

Garden Party is a thoroughly inconsequential example of the intertwined short stories which ostensibly offer a portrait of a city or a subculture. In this case, it’s simply a fashionable take on the idea of strangers in Los Angeles – some just arrived to find fame and fortune only to face an indifferent culture and plenty of folks ready to prey on their needs, some having survived the ordeal and found their niche in the meatmarket of a city – passing through one another’s lives, but an unusual focal point: Internet porn. We’ve got an artist addicted to Internet porn, a real estate agent who secures customer loyalty by including a little weed in her client’s packages, a teenager who flees a stepdad making moves on her and making the rent by posing nude for a website operator, and a blank slate of an aspiring singer/songwriter who just drifts through the city and getting by on the kindness of strangers, just a few of the characters who never seem to grow out of their single-sentence descriptions.

Half the characters are perpetually stoned (the rest pace themselves more carefully) and all of them are on the make for money, for sex, for success. They’re not a likeable bunch, to be sure, but the bigger problem is that there’s little resonance to their stories. Freeland gets passable performances but no real interaction or dramatic engagement from his cast, and the blandly sleek imagery just compounds the impersonality.

Whether or not Garden Party is an accurate portrait of the shadow L.A. culture where the young, pretty and desperate can find quick rent money, this low-budget production never engages with its characters or stories enough to make you care either way.

Read the complete review here.

Author: seanax

I write the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website (www.streamondemandathome.com). I’m a contributing writer for Turner Classic Movies Online, Keyframe, Independent Lens, and Cinephiled, and the editor of Parallax View (www.parallax-view.org).. I’ve written for The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, The Seattle Weekly, GreenCine.com, Senses of Cinema, Asian Cult Cinema, and Psychotronic Video, among other publications, and I am a contributing editor to Parallax View.

I currently live and work in Seattle, Washington, with my two cats, Hammet and Chandler.

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