The Wackness flashes its indie cred with quirky, emotionally fucked-up characters and offbeat dialogue and situations. This time, though, the film places these cliched elements in 1994 New York in the hopes of trading in on nostalgia. Fortunately, some of it works. Josh Peck plays Luke Shapiro, an eighteen year old drug-dealer who mopes through his final summer before college. His upper middle class parents are constantly squabbling. He is a virgin. He has no friends. His only outlet is his relationship with his therapist, a hippie named Dr. Squires (Ben Kingsley) who trades therapy sessions for bags of weed. Luke's only hope for romance comes from the stepdaughter of Dr. Squires, the smoldering and laid-back Stephanie (Olivia Thirlby). If the plot sounds familiar, it is. This is basically the formula followed by every lower-budget "independent" film of recent years. Other Sundance faves like Little Miss Sunshine and Juno have mixed rambling, formless plots with bizarre, "cute-quirky" characters who talk way too hip for casual conversation. In The Wackness, the characters are incomprehensibly screwed up, with constant drug use, broken relationships, and promiscuous sex. Here, though, the contrived and cliched situations are shot through with nostalgic period recreations. The cinematography by Petra Korner accentuates this feeling with flashes of golden-hued light and soft-focus close-ups. It's a technically-amsterful take on a well-traveled genre. Peck, fresh from Drake and Josh on the Disney Channel, admirably takes this adult role very seriously, and embodies Luke's sulking teenaged depression with realism. His performance, all slouches and mumbles, resembles a startling continuation of Leo Fitzpatrick's Telly from Larry Clark's landmark 1995 film Kids. Unlike Telly, Peck's Luke has a conscience and a heart, and Peck skillfully uses his eyes to demonstrate Luke's inner turmoil and desires. Matching him is a radiant Thirlby as Luke's potential girlfriend Stephanie. The showiest role, however, goes to Kingsley as the pot-smoking therapist Dr. Squires. Kingsley, nearly unrecognizable, goes through a brittle and prickly mid-life crisis as Squires. Despite some lapses in his overly-broad performance (what's with the changing accents, Ben??), he manages to convey a wide range of believable emotions. The primary problems in the film come from writer/director Jonathan Levine and a misshapen script. The tone of the film is wildly uneven, veering uncontrollably from drama to comedy to artsy, affected nonsense. Levine inserts bizarre pop-culture references that have no particular point, nor do they fit in with the rest of a film that contains far too few of them. For instance, after Luke falls in love with Stephanie, he starts to dance along the sidewalk, the concrete blocks lighting beneath his feet like Michael Jackson's Billie Jean video; sure, it's cute, but it has no relevance to the rest of the film, and the tone of the film is realistic. All this cute scene does is to distract the audience. Inside this script is a wonderful story that could have been given resonance. For instance, one of the final shots of the film show Kingsley sitting on a bench, staring forlornly at the World Trade Towers in the distance. With more work, this scene could have held some sort of relevance to the plight of the characters. Instead, Levine just allows this and many other potential moments to disappear into the formless plot. This kind of sloppiness extends even to the characters themselves, who never resolve their problems or come to meaningful conclusions. Most dispiriting is the finale to Luke's relationship with Stephanie; instead of giving weight to Luke's heartbreak, the film circles around to it and then caps it with an elevator scene completely lacking in any investment. What a disappointment. So many indie films, based on their budgets, are often confined to stories about people in realistic situations. In that case, care must be taken to properly tell their stories and provide a proper emotional conclusion. The Wackness, despite some terrific performances from Peck, Kingsley, and Thirlby, unfortunately fails to do that. Not a bad film, but not the film it could have been, nor one deserving of the slobbering love it received at Sundance this past spring.