Young Jewish actor, director give in to Wackness

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

Josh Peck got his showbiz start doing stand-up comedy when he was 8, then segued into acting in his early teens. He’s now 21, and his career is in high gear — yet only recently have his pesky relatives finally stopped worrying about his career path.

“[For] a lot of family members, it was a very major thing on their minds what my future was going to be,” he recalled during an interview to promote his new film, “The Wackness.”

“Especially if you pick something outside of the doctor-lawyer type of profession, something that’s not as, quote-unquote, steady as some other professions might be, that elicits some unrest in more of the traditional thinkers, especially in my family.”

Peck said he — and his mom — were continually asked about when he was going to come to his senses and go to college.

“That sort of transcended to a bit of Luke,” he added, “that he was tired of hearing everyone else’s opinion, and what everyone else had to say about his life, and he wanted to figure it out for himself.”

Luke, played by Peck, is the frustrated, fresh-out-of-high-school kid at the center of “The Wackness,” a charming and wistful coming-of-age comedy set in Manhattan in the summer of 1994. His summer job is selling pot; his most dependable customer is his depressed therapist, played by Ben Kingsley. The movie opens Friday, July 11 at two S.F. theaters and in wider distribution two weeks later.

Jonathan Levine, who is about 10 years older than fellow New Yorker Peck, wrote and directed the semi-autobiographical film. Both were in San Francisco in May when the hip-hop-infused film had its local premiere at the S.F. International Film Festival — and both had a hoot taking part in a Jewish-oriented interview.

Levine, for example, addressed whether there was any Jewish tone to the film.

“Certainly the way [Luke’s] family interacts, they’re very emotive, they’re very emotional and they feel things very deeply,” he said. “I don’t know if that’s a specifically Jewish characteristic or not, but it’s definitely something that my family has.”

“Luke’s parents,” Peck chimed in, “have this brilliant, passive way of getting their emotion across, planting the seed and then waiting for it to just grow and manifest itself into your psyche until you’re haunted by it, and you can’t rid yourself of this weight.”

Both director and star cracked up at that point.

“See,” said Levine, “that’s the other thing you don’t want to get into it because then we might realize how much our Jewish upbringings have really traumatized us.”

Seriously, though, one curious thing about “The Wackness” — from a Jewish perspective — is that Luke’s parents, atypically, hardly ever press him on his plans.

“We actually cut [out] a scene where they do talk about his future,” Levine said. “It felt kind of an appendage in a way, because as much as that is something that would be talked about, a lot of what’s going on with this family is so in the moment that there [isn’t] really much time to consider the future. It’s in the midst of a crisis.”

The interview began with Peck playfully yet proudly declaring he can still recite his bar mitzvah Torah portion. Not bad, considering his self-described “ultra-Reform” bar mitzvah took place at an Italian restaurant in midtown Manhattan — not just the reception, but the Torah reading as well.

Levine observed, “I feel like we’re both part of this generation of people who grow up and Judaism becomes more about a cultural identification than a religious identification, for better or worse.”

Peck nodded his head. “You inherently feel Jewish no matter what,” the young star said. “Where I draw my spirituality from is still being decided. But culturally I feel it’s very much a part of my core.”

“The Wackness” opens Friday, July 11, at San Francisco’s Landmark Embarcadero Center Cinema and Sundance Kabuki Cinema, and July 25 at eight additional Bay Area cinemas.

Michael Fox

Michael Fox is a longtime film journalist and critic, and a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Film Critics Circle. He teaches documentary classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute programs at U.C. Berkeley and S.F. State. In 2015, the San Francisco Film Society added Fox to Essential SF, its ongoing compendium of the Bay Area film community's most vital figures and institutions.