Pete Davidson is the new Lena Dunham: young, from New York, funny, with a tortured mind and talent galore which he places at the service of his own self-destruction. Not surprisingly, when pairing up with a director to film a confessional script for him, he chose none other than Judd Apatow. At the end of the day, it was Apatow who reorganized, in this case as a producer, Dunham’s creative torrent in the series ‘Girls’. Now, if that show swarmed the most hipster cafes in the Williamsburg neighborhood, Davidson and his troop crawl around Staten Island, the blandest of the five New York boroughs. The one you live in when you can’t afford a burrow in Manhattan or Brooklyn. Or the one where tourists only know the ferry terminal, because the trip is free, so custom dictates that as soon as you arrive, you take the next one back to continue taking selfies.
In this depressed and depressing neighborhood, Davidson sets in motion an auto-fiction and explains the story of a certain Scott: an orphan who loses his firefighter father, in a fire, when he is still very young. 9/11 is not mentioned, but the 2001 bombings cost the life of Pete Davidson’s father, whose name was … Scott. The tribute could not be more explicit and the self-references, too. From here, the film is the journey into adulthood of a young man with few opportunities and, apparently, little talent. He wants to be a tattoo artist but still, from time to time, he messes things up royally.
The appearance of a father figure –his mother’s first boyfriend after becoming a widow– will ignite a litany of conflicts, some of them Freudian. And it will cause Scott to begin to demystify the memory of his father. Meanwhile, the boy understands that his friends –with whom he mainly uses drugs and kills time– can no longer accompany him: he needs to start carving out a future for himself. He accepts that without a trade or an income, his idea of setting up a restaurant tattoo parlor maybe, just maybe, isn’t the best he’s had. And there is also the love dimension, with a very classic approach: a loving and upright girlfriend to whom he is unable to offer the slightest commitment, more out of immaturity than out of badness.
What role does Staten Island play in all of this? Well, as a symbol of vital muddiness. Things never change in the neighborhood, doomed to be a dormitory suburb. In fact, the only one who believes in his future is his girlfriend, to the point that she dreams of working as a city planner to transform things. Because, although Staten Island administratively depends on New York, the film emphasizes its character of reality on the fringes. The typical skyline of the city appears a couple of times, always far away. And when Scott visits Manhattan, we only see him –with all the tourists– amid the chaos of Times Square, dwarfed.
All these conflicts are served in the classic Apatow packaging, full of scatological jokes and black humor. “The King of Staten Island” is packed with dialogue but it’s clear that they’ve been given plenty of room to expand at will. We’re not far off Cassavetes territory: better have plenty of material so we can leave it on the cutting room floor. And there is this bittersweet vision of the passage from adolescence to maturity, which was also present in films such as “The 40-Year-Old-Virgin”. But with one very relevant difference. If the protagonist of that film was endearing and only a little weird for not having had sexual relations, our protagonist in “The King of Staten Island” is much more extreme, since he suffers from a mental disorder. And, therefore, his eccentricities have a comic aspect, but also deeply painful, because it’s clear from the get-go that he’s a character who suffers. Also, that he’s sufficiently self-aware to understand that some of his gears don’t turn like society expects of him, but not strong enough to fix the works.
In the opening scene, for example, the protagonist flirts with suicide and the desire to commit suicide is latent in much of the footage. And the real Davidson, indeed, tried to kill himself as a teenager, so that as much as the scenes are extreme and filtered via comedy, it’s impossible to separate person and character. This makes watching the film especially intense, because not everything is a show. And, in the end, a couple of years ago people feared again for the life of this comedian, when he broke up with Ariadna Grande, after a very high-profile romance with major media impact.
If, in addition to this emotional density we add some luxurious supporting characters, such as Marisa Tomei in the role of an overwhelmed mother, and Steve Buscemi –an ex-firefighter in real life– playing the figure of a subtle guardian angel, the result is Apatow’s best film since ‘Funny People’. Also, it’s a great way to discover the complexity of Pete Davidson, beyond his crazy interventions in the mythical ‘Saturday Night Live’.