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Strong cast makes ‘The Wackness’ work

Nickelodeon star Josh Peck makes an impressive breakthrough as an alienated, middle-class drug dealer

In “The Opposite of Sex,” Christina Ricci’s character disparagingly refers to the “and nothing was the same again after that summer” genre of movies. And while “The Wackness” technically fits into that category — and also into the category of “Sundance movies about quirky dysfunctional white people” — the strong performances lift it out of the world of cliché and turn it into one of the year’s more pleasant surprises.

The summer in question is 1994 — New York City’s local color is being threatened by Rudy Giuliani’s draconian policies, kids are listening to A Tribe Called Quest and Notorious B.I.G., and Luke Shapiro (Josh Peck) has just graduated from high school. While he acts as a dope connection for most of his classmates, he’s never felt close to any of them; when he makes a pot run to one fellow student’s house, he’s surprised to find a raging graduation party to which he hadn’t been invited.

Feeling alienated from his bickering parents, Luke does most of his talking to a slightly shady shrink, Dr. Jeffrey Squires (Ben Kingsley), with whom he has set up a joints-for-therapy barter system. Squires encourages Luke to get out there and live a little, get his heart broken, make a connection.

Little does the heavily medicated M.D. realize that the object of Luke’s attention is Squires’ stepdaughter Stephanie (Olivia Thirlby of “Juno”). Stephanie seems to return Luke’s affection, but is she really into him or just taking advantage of the fact that all her other friends are away for the summer?

While the first few minutes of “The Wackness” don’t bode well — if you’ve seen enough indies, you start recognizing high-concept warning signs like white kids listening to hip-hop and pot-smoking authority figures — whatever writing or directing mistakes were committed by young filmmaker Jonathan Levine (“All the Boys Love Mandy Lane”) are more than made up for by his first-rate casting and the exceptional performances he has elicited from his actors.

I am admittedly unfamiliar with Peck’s work on the Nickelodeon comedy “Drake & Josh,” but I feel comfortable saying that the show probably never pushed him as far as the role of Luke. It’s exceedingly difficult for an actor to play someone uncommunicative and simultaneously create a complete and complex character, but Peck puts us inside this kid’s head.

And I’m more than willing to forgive Kingsley for “The Love Guru” after his compelling work in “The Wackness” — again, the character of a pot-smoking, shaggy-haired, skeevy shrink could have been utterly trite, but Kingsley puts a human face on what might have been just a jokey cliché in the hands of a lesser actor.

Famke Janssen doesn’t get to make much of an impression in her very small role, but Thirlby, Jane Adams and even Mary-Kate Olsen (whose makeout scene with Kingsley seems destined to be the film’s most talked-about moment) all click in their brief moments on screen.

Whether or not “The Wackness” gets lost in the loud summer din of superheroes and sequels, the film should at least provide a springboard for Josh Peck to take on more challenging and mature roles; his outstanding work here proves he’s more than ready to make that leap.