A blog about movies and filmmaking.

Kids trying to grow up too fast…

In Actors, drama on July 16, 2009 at 2:25 am

There is a whole sub-genre of movies about kids learning about life from adults – usually not their parents – and the  adults showing them how uncool, or better yet, down-right shitty it is to be “grown up”. Whether it be things like LOST IN TRANSLATION or SECONDHAND LIONS, these are movies that I tend to like and empathize with. It’s only been recently that I figure I’ve made the transition from being the kid, and am now an adult; so I have to say at the moment I’m kind of stuck in between seeing the pitfalls of both sides. Two such movies, that I just saw, are THE WACKNESS and HALF NELSON.

Both feature kids on the cusp of being considered grown up – or at least of the kids thinking that they’re there. And show the adults around them, just how screwed up it is to supposedly be “the responsible ones”. There’s varied topics that run through both, like first love; drugs and irresponsible parents, and it makes both of these movies touching and great stories to see.

THE WACKNESS is a movie that takes place in 1994, is about Luke Shapiro; a high school graduate and the summer before he begins college, starring Josh Peck (From the tv show “Drake and Josh”) . Luke also makes a living dealing weed to the denizens of New York City, while riding around town on his bicycle or hopping on a train, listening to hip-hop. One of his clients, a step-father to another client his own age, is psychiatrist, Jeffrey Squires, played by Ben Kingsley. Instead of paying for his weed though, Squires gets it in exchange for time listening to Luke’s issues with life. Of course, at the moment, the biggest issue that Luke Shapiro has is wanting to be with a girl and the one he happens to have an eye on is Stephanie, Squires’ step-daughter. (Played wonderfully, by Olivia Thirlby – who I previously mentioned in my little talk about the movie SNOW ANGELS, also kind of on this same topic.)

Eventually, it winds up with Squires and Luke hanging out. Squires buys drinks for them – and in one scene, at a bar, he gets drinks for a whole rabble of kids that venture in wanting to see the “weird old people”. One of the kids happens to be Mary-Kate Olsen, who in the movie is playing a stoner hippy (playing…right) and she seems to develop a thing for Dr. Squires when he  regales her with stories of seeing The Grateful Dead and his various “trips”. Which leads to a kind of unsettling, but not really uncommon, scene between them in a phone booth.

Of course, when Kingsley’s character gets a whiff that Luke might have a thing for his (step) daughter, he forbids them from seeing each other. This develops into a couple of different scenarios for why he would do this. (It is kind of a square thing to do.) One comes about in a strange, and almost horrific moment, when Stephanie in basically her underwear is sitting on a couch watching television, and smoking; Squires comes out – also in his underwear – and approaches her and questions her on what she’s doing with the boy. There is a slight, if not unintended hint of a Lolita-ish relationship between these two, but there’s never any kind of concrete evidence to take that scene any farther than it is. Then the other is when Squires is talking to Luke about Stephanie, sort of warning him off, as she’s sort of an Estella-type person, who will lead a boy on and use him only because she’s bored. Then when something new comes along, cast him aside. Naturally,  Luke has to ignore this; because you can’t truly know something until you’ve gone through it.

So, Stephanie and Luke wind up spending a weekend together in a cabin – as her parents have taken off for the weekend themselves, to try and rekindle their marriage. It’s here that Luke breaks out of his exterior of wanting to be a “thug” – if only to try and work saying how he feels into that lingo, so as to still look cool. But, by the end of their “honeymoon”, he’s revealed as the still immature and naive boy, that he is.

THE WACKNESS is writer/director Jonathan Levine, and he does a wonderful job of trying to recreate 1994. Down to even the eventual, and obligatory shot of the World Trade Centers still standing. But, the true artistry is how he work his editing style on the movie. There’s not really anything new or ground-breaking, but what is accomplishes is giving us a movie set in the mind of an eight-teen year old, who isn’t quite ready for the world that he’s pretending he’s man enough for. There’s a fantastic scene, after his first kiss with Stephanie, that is an homage to the Michael Jackson music video “Billie Jean”, with light up sidewalks and everything. Which in itself, is kind of strange considering the time-period (Jackson would have been going  through his court cases, at this time) and that music video having come nearly ten year before. And yet, it works perfectly.

The acting is all superb, especially from the two leads – Peck and Thirlby. They have a great connection and Peck, especially does a great job going back and forth between being the sensitive kid that won’t sell out (as his former friends have by changing from listening to rap, to listening to Pearl Jam), to the persona he puts on in front of people. I’ve seen Josh Peck in a number of things – ranging from the tv series, to the movie MEAN CREEK, where he plays a bully that is given a taste of his own medicine (and then some) – and I’m excited to see where this guy goes from here.

The adults in the movie are good too. Besides Kingsley – who I’ll get to in a moment – there is Famke Janssen playing Stephanie’s mom and Kingsley’s wife (who is cold and we never get to see her be anything other than shut off); Method Man who is the drug dealer that Luke gets his supply from (and introduces Luke to The Notorious BIG, who continues to repeatedly be mentioned throughout the movie) and Jane Adams. I was almost tempted to do a blog post on this wonderful character actor, who I’ve recently encountered a number of times in the movies I’ve been watching. Here she plays a woman in some kind of not-too-healthy relationship, with some (never seen) guy. She only has a few minutes of screen-time, but like in other movies (LITTLE CHILDREN, ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND and even though I’ve not seen it – I know, for shame – HAPPINESS) she just stands out.

And last, there is Sir Ben Kingsley. Man, he is such a ham. I admit, my first experience with him in a movie was the movie SNEAKERS, and I loved him in that. Over the past number of years, I’ve seen his more well known pictures – GANDHI – to his more critically acclaimed recent movies – SEXY BEAST, ELEGY and I liked him in LUCKY NUMBER SLEVIN – to his more abysmal and shabby work – A SOUND OF THUNDER, SUSPECT ZERO. The guy can act, it’s just that sometimes he doesn’t really seem to want to and there are moments here where he just doesn’t seem to want to. He gives some awkward line readings. His accent fades in and out (an issue, I don’t conventionally hold against people, too often) and he does just seem really weird – although, at least that part does seem in character.

HALF NELSON is a little more of a downer. It’s the story of junior high school, History teacher Dan Dunne, and a girl who is in his class and that he coaches on the girl’s basketball team, named Drey. Dunne, played by the amazing Ryan Gosling, spends his off hours getting high, having sex with prostitutes – or other teachers – and eventually becoming sort of friends with Drey. Drey, played here – and in the short film that this movie is based on – by Shareeka Epps, goes home to a single mom and is neglected by her never-seen father. She has an older brother in jail for selling drugs, and she winds up under the wing of the man that helped put her brother there, Frank (Anthony Mackie, who can presently be seen in the movie THE HURT LOCKER – which I’ve not been able to see yet, but everyone is raving about). While the story, and all the glory, goes to Rosling’s character in this movie; it’s Drey that goes through the most changes and by the end has had to deal with – and hopefully, come out on top – the rough stuff she goes through.

Dunne, who is teaching a History class, with a focus on Dialectics (a form of arguments from philosophical standpoints, or something). He spends a good deal of time teaching the kids in his class about opposing forces and change and there’s a heavy focus on Civil Rights (which strangely in one moment, has the principle tell Dunne to teach more about Civil Rights), which the movie then inter-weaves actual footage of actual Civil Rights images and speeches, along with having kids give mini-speeches about certain figures in the movement.

There’s a lot said about political and ethical views in the movie, including a couple of comments about the books on Dunne’s bookshelf, a teacher always in the lounge at school reading about uneducated happenings going on in the country and even a confrontation between Dunne and Frank that goes down the “White is right” road. But, what I really took from the movie, is that people who do bad things are not always bad. We see this most explicitly in the characters of Frank and Dunne, who each kind of take it on themselves to fight over Drey. With one being a drug dealer saying, “you shouldn’t hang out with a drug user” and the drug user saying, “you shouldn’t hang out with a drug dealer”.

By the end, Drey seems to have her mind set in realizing this herself. She also has a phase where it seems like she’s developed kind of a crush on her coach/teacher, as after spending some time with him – and seeing a photo of his ex-girlfriend – she goes home and puts on some of her mother’s make-up.

The movie is very evasive on giving us too much information about Dunne’s life. We see the girl he used to be with. There’s talk of her having gone through a rehab problem – and he talks about how he quit doing drugs, as he’s sniffing some cocaine. We see him spend an evening with his parents and brother, and how he basically just winds up getting high after having had to spend time with anyone. But, we’re never given a reason why this young man, who is so invigorated on expanding some inner-city kid’s minds, is on this self-destructive path. And, it’s not even that it’s necessary – or if it was given to us, that it would be satisfactory – it’s just that we then get so much information on Drey, that we start to wonder why we spend so much time with this guy.

The performances are all great here, especially Gosling – who was nominated for an Oscar for his role – and Shareeka Epps. They all feel like real people, and we get small doses of Drey still being a kid, even though she spends a great deal of time in the movie dealing with these grown ups as equals. There are moments that I would believe that Gosling was actually stoned or needing a fix, the way he sweats and is pale, or his eyes are just glazed and unfocused. There is also one scene where he almost does something that would probably have lost all sympathy from the audience, had another character not busted him in the lip. (Although, interesting that just trying it, doesn’t make me hate him…Something I might need to look into.)

The writer/directer of the movie is Ryan Fleck, and he mostly captures the movie with hand-held cameras. Which works, since subliminally none of the characters are on solid ground. Fleck has recently been directing episodes of the Cable show “In Treatment”, and has a more recent movie called SUGAR (about Latin Americans who are brought to the U.S. to play baseball). There’s nothing show here, and that’s a boon for the subject matter. The only steady shots in the whole movie, are during a scene where Dunne’s mother has called to say she enjoyed having him over – and we’re seeing still shots of his empty apartment, as he’s stayed out all night on a bender, after having dealt with his family.

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  1. […] the movies he’s been in, and also to forgetting most of the ones I have. He was fantastic in HALF NELSON, and that is definitely comparable to Williams’ Brokeback role (he was nominated for an Oscar […]

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