If 1994 doesn’t seem long enough ago to set a nostalgic-acidic coming-of-age movie, it’s worth remembering that genre classic American Graffiti was made in 1974 and set in 1962. However, this premature nostalgia-for-the-nineties picture – which alludes, among other things, to Rudy Giuliani’s ‘zero tolerance’ polices in cleaning up New York, hip-hop music and slang spreading out from the black audience to upscale but mixed-up white kids, hotel porn featuring Traci Lords, Forrest Gump (!) and cassette mix tapes – is also an apt, intriguing teenage dystopia follow-up to writer-director Jonathan Levine’s overachieving slasher film All the Boys Love Mandy Lane, which also turned on a misfit kid enslaved and dumped by his teen princess best friend.
Luke Shapiro (Josh Peck), the son of squabbling Upper East Side parents who are about to suffer an economic downturn, makes good money selling pot in school and (in summer) out of an ice-cart he trundles around town. Among his best clients is Dr Jeffrey Squires (Ben Kingsley), a shrink who trades sessions for weed, and is stepfather to Stephanie (Olivia Thirlby), the ideal teen Josh thinks he doesn’t have a chance with – until everyone else they know heads off to exotic places over a sweltering summer, and she gets interested in the ins and outs of his craft. In the family retreat on Fire Island, the kids have horribly believable first-time sex and a more fantasised idyll that recalls the ‘golden girl’ aspect of Mandy Lane. However, the real relationship in the film is between Luke and Squires – when the doctor warns the kid off his stepdaughter, he’s not being a hypocrite who thinks his dealer isn’t good enough for the girl but a realist who knows Stephanie will get bored and break the sensitive kid’s heart.
The oddball trend to make a hero of the school drug connection (cf: Charlie Bartlett, Weed) admirably goes against prevailing thinking, but these self-medicated foul-ups are hardly ads for the dope lifestyle – and getting high is obviously their way of putting off any decisions. Kingsley, with a scraggle of hair and a nice line in patter, is very entertaining as the irresponsible grown-up who actually seems to do some good as a psychiatrist even as his own marriage (to Famke Janssen) falls apart and he veers close to a last-reel suicide attempt which feels a bit too much like a mock-climax for dramatic purposes. Levine cannily casts former teen star Mary-Kate Olsen as a waif nymphet (who has a sex scene with Sir Ben, which is wrong on so many levels it’s funny) and rapper Method Man as the supplier who gets Luke his dope and also feeds him the new tunes before they break big. Jane Adams, one of the best small-role actresses around, is funny, sexy and touching as another of Luke’s clients, a spaced-out former musician.