"Wackness" Wins with Quirky Story, Peck's Performance

Funny and poignant, "The Wackness" is one of the better coming-of-age films to hit theaters in a while.

Real life plays intriguingly in the background of this edgy comedy, set in 1994 during a sweltering New York summer. The recently inaugurated mayor, Rudy Giulani, begins to implement his efforts to cut down on such urban annoyances as graffiti, public inebriation and noisy portable stereos.

Running up against these restrictions is Luke (Josh Peck), a recent high school graduate. Troubled by his parents' incessant squabbling and grappling with his growing sense of depression, he sells marijuana, trading weed for words of wisdom — from his drug-addled psychiatrist, Dr. Squires (Ben Kingsley).

When Luke asks for anti-depressants, Squires advises him to embrace his pain, rather than run away from it. In the good doctor's opinion, Luke just needs to find a girl.

But things get complicated. Luke develops a powerful crush on Squires' cheeky stepdaughter Stephanie (Olivia Thirlby). Thirlby, last seen in "Juno" as the title character's best friend, gives an appealing, natural performance.

Meanwhile, Squires is having a whopper of a midlife crisis, aching to cheat on his wife (Famke Janssen) and acting more like an adolescent than his teenage patient. This is Sir Ben as you've never seen him. His long-haired character is whacked out on booze and drugs and even indulges in a dalliance with Mary-Kate Olsen, in dreadlocks, playing a worshipful druggy chick.

But the film belongs to Peck, who gives an achingly honest performance as a smart and sensitive kid on the brink of adulthood.

He watches his parents fight and can't get over how childish they seem, but he's a good kid and yearns to help them somehow. He falls in love with Stephanie, and one of the film's highlights is how he reacts when his heart is broken for the first time. You sense the character's burgeoning maturity amid the pain.

A subplot involving Kingsley and a dippy one-hit wonder (Jane Adams) seems formulaic and unnecessary.

The writing and filmmaking style are often poetic, and the dialogue, steeped in '90s phrases, sounds believable. Though teen angst is familiar cinematic turf, the key to the film's authenticity lies in Peck's winning performance.

"The Wackness" is both darkly funny and life-affirming, in an offbeat and offhanded way.