Other than director Judd Apatow and co-screenwriter Dave Sirus, I’m not sure anyone knew Pete Davidson had even a shred of acting talent. The King of Staten Island will change that.
Davidson stars as Scott Carlin, a version of himself, in a story loosely-based on his experience with depression, drug addiction, borderline personality disorder, and grief. As a 24-year old, Scott hangs in his mom’s basement, smoking weed and selling drugs with his equally underachieving friends. He’s clear to blame is anger and apathy on the death of his firefighter dad, though it happened when he was only 7 years old. He’s belligerent and dismissive to both his mother (Marisa Tomei) and Kelsey (Bel Powley), the childhood friend he’s hooking up with in secret.
Apatow is no stranger to mining complicated subjects for humor, but The King of Staten Island is dark even by his standards. There’s good reason for that. Though in the film, we are only told Scott’s dad died attempting to rescue someone trapped in a fire, the real story is that he died on September 11th, while responding to the World Trade Center attack. Knowing that about the SNL comedian puts some of his more self-destructive behavior in perspective, and certainly offers a clear explanation why Davidson’s fictionalized character Scott might harbor some rage and sadness after all this time.
Still, it makes getting into the film from the beginning a bit of a challenge. Scott is barely likable. It’s a dark personal world he experiences. The audience can almost see a black cloud hovering above the character, and his stubborn refusal to move forward is palpable. It’s also what will keep some more empathetic, curious viewers watching. Davidson, for his part, makes Scott compelling to watch, even if we expect at any point for him to off himself.
While The King of Staten Island exposes Davidson’s acting talent, making us wonder about his range beyond portraying a version of himself, it is Marisa Tomei’s appearances that light up the screen. She brings a complexity to Margie Carlin, a mother who loves her son, still mourns her husband, but is straining against the life she’s boxed herself into. There’s a scene in which she confronts Scott and her new firefighter boyfriend Ray (Bill Burr) that is classic, memorable Tomei fare.
The film only really comes to life when Scott starts interacting with a company of firefighters, led by the captain they call Papa (Steve Buscemi). That’s when the pacing from the rest of the movie makes sense, and the Scott’s character arc is chiseled into view. Buscemi is a perfect fit to play Papa, especially since he worked as a firefighter after 9/11, but the actor is always so authentic and grounded, his own experiences probably just added to his portrayal. In every scene, he stands present in his character’s leadership and compassion.
As the child of a mother who died of cancer when I was not yet a teenager, I remember being increasingly angry at her as I got older. I later learned it was something that a lot of kids who lose parents go through. I can’t imagine the additional rage at losing someone to terrorism, as well as though the active choice that parent made. There’s a pivotal scene in a ballpark where Scott expresses how he feels about his loss that is bracing and powerful. Lots of people who lost their parents will be able to relate to it in some way.
Is The King of Staten Island funny? Not often, though it has its moments. It’s actually more often painful to watch. What it does have is a really believable representation of someone with depression and grief trying to work through it, or at least make peace with it. Lest you wonder, it also offers a ray of hope to those who share those struggles. It doesn’t leave you in Scott’s rage, it takes you with him, as he searches and feels for a way to get beyond it.
3 out of 5 stars