Dir: Jonathan Levine. US. 2008. 110 mins.
Having shown that he is a dab hand at teen horror in Toronto 2006 hit All The Boys Love Mandy Lane, Jonathan Levine proves that he can handle character-driven drama, albeit still of the teen variety, in his second film The Wackness. The audience award winner at Sundance last week, the film is a surprisingly tender coming-of-age piece about a well-to-do high school graduate - and weed-peddler - learning life lessons in the summer before he goes to college.

Set in 1994, a year which gives Levine the chance to furnish the film with a soundtrack of then-new hip hop standards (The Notorious BIG, A Tribe Called Quest et al), The Wackness is intelligently written and directed and boasts some superior performances. It's unusual to see such fully-rounded characterization and truthful dialogue in a second film, not to mention such a sweet evocation of first love and first heartbreak.

The film sags in the middle and is probably about ten minutes too long, but reviews will be generally positive and it stands a better commercial shot than other New York-set coming-of-age stories like Igby Goes Down, A Guide To Recognizing Your Saints or Coming Soon. It bears some similarities to Sidney Kimmel Entertainment's Charlie Bartlett about a high schooler who supplies prescription meds; that film opens in the US on Feb 22.

International buyers might be attracted by the presence of Ben Kingsley in a lead role, the soundtrack and the Sundance prize, but it might get lost in the glut of US teen movies out there and could be a hard sell to theatrical audiences outside the US.

A revelation of sorts in the lead role is Josh Peck, a young actor who is best known in the US as the star of Nickelodeon kids show Drake & Josh, although Sundance audiences will remember him as the murdered bully in Jacob Aaron Estes' Mean Creek. Peck is naturally appealing as Luke Shapiro, a disillusioned, self-doubting youth who deals marijuana and does all he can to avoid his arguing, financially troubled parents.

Almost entirely without friends at school, he has one confidante in Dr Jeffrey Squires (Kingsley), a psychiatrist who sees him for therapy in exchange for weed. Squires is himself disillusioned at his failing marriage (to Famke Janssen) and finds solace in his conversations with Luke.

However, he does not approve of Luke's increasing interest in his stepdaughter Stephanie (Thirlby) which blossoms into a summer romance. Luke falls for her and loses his virginity to her.

As the summer goes on, Luke and Squires spend more time together and Squires travels around the city with him to his regular clients - including hippie Union (Olsen, whose kissing scene with Kingsley is startling) and neurotic Eleanor (Adams). But when Squires' wife leaves him and Stephanie cheats on Luke, both reach a turning point in their lives.

There's a nice rapport between Peck and Kingsley, in one of his gruff US characterisations (see You Kill Me, Lucky Number Slevin), and Thirlby is seductive as the worldly wise Stephanie. Born and raised in the city himself, Levine makes the most of his New York City locations, effectively bringing all the heat and atmosphere of a Manhattan summer to the screen.

Production companies
Occupant Films
North American distribution
Sony Pictures Classics

Keith Calder
Felipe Marino
Joe Neurauter

Jonathan Levine

Director of photography
Petra Korner

Production designer
Annie Spitz

Josh Noyes

David Torn

Main cast
Josh Peck
Ben Kingsley
Olivia Thirlby
Famke Janssen
Jane Adams
Mary-Kate Olsen
Method Man
Talia Balsam