I don’t often begin reviews with anecdotes, but for a film like this, it feels only right. Growing up I suffered from mental health issues that plague me to this day and my father was around until he wasn’t. I’ve spent the first years of my 20’s reckoning with everything wrong with myself and everything I want to do, though I already feel like there is no time to do it. Everyone loves a rags to riches story, but no one really hears about the dark times – before the path to the vaguest idea of “riches” even begins. In many ways, I relate to the story at the heart of Judd Apatow’s (Knocked Up) latest and even its star Pete Davidson, who has spent his career chronicling this very tale. It all culminates in the effervescent and admirably shaggy The King of Staten Island.
As a semi-autobiography of Pete Davidson, the film follows Scott (Davidson), a 20-something-year-old struggling to make his dreams of becoming a tattoo artist come true as his mental health deteriorates. Everyone around him just wants him to finally grow up. The film at once feels like a gasp for breath in a sea of depression and anxiety as well as a liferaft for others who may know Scott’s plight all too well. Apatow has made a career out of schlubby stoner comedies about men learning to grow up, but he seems to have met his muse with Davidson, a man whose life already echoes his niche for storytelling. What is so distinct about The King of Staten Island, however, is that Scott is a man of painful honesty – in what he says and chooses not to say. In one moment he admits to wanting to hurt himself, in the next he laughs at a friend making fun of his dead father. Sometimes it’s unclear whether we should even be laughing at certain scenes in which Scott makes yet another self-destructive choice. This is a man at risk, in need of help.
The comedy at the expense of Scott’s depression and anxieties works only because it comes from a place of empathy. It feels precisely like the kind of self-deprecating humor that people who struggle with mental health make to either not feel their pain so much or not feel like a burden on others. This is what The King of Staten Island understands better than any movie about mental health I’ve ever seen. Scott doesn’t want to feel like sh*t and he doesn’t want to make other people feel the same either, so he bottles it up until he explodes and everyone ends up feeling like sh*t.
All of this can be attributed to Apatow and his beautiful, emotionally in-tune direction. But more than anyone else, this movie works because of Pete Davidson. Davidson gives one of the great comedic performances perhaps ever, veering wildly between silly and utterly pained, with such authenticity that one begins to wonder where Scott begins and Pete ends. It’s the cinematic equivalent of finally finding the words to vent everything you have ever wanted to say – so that you might be able to finally think new thoughts for once.
Davidson isn’t the only one who gives a great performance though, with Marisa Tomei (The Wrestler) also bringing pathos and a real sense of emotional truth. After his standout performance on The Mandalorian, Bill Burr once again surprises, showing his acting chops go far beyond the stage. He strikes equally vulgar and lovable notes that make him an incredible foil for Davidson. The King of Staten Island’s secret weapon, however, may very well be the absolutely remarkable Bel Powley (The Diary of a Teenage Girl). She elevates what could have felt like a more understated role and livens it with acidic wit and vulnerability that bring the film some of its best scenes.
Due to the ongoing pandemic, The King of Staten Island will be released on demand rather than in theaters. A huge shame given that, more than any of his films before, Apatow has crafted a truly gorgeous work. Cinematography by Oscar nominee Robert Elswit (There Will Be Blood, Nightcrawler) makes it look, at the risk of sounding reductive, like an honest-to-god film. Even going beyond the cinematography, Apatow has seriously stretched his filmmaking muscles – implementing genre elements with moments of action and drama that are played effectively in eliciting real tension. It’s one of many signs that everyone involved in the production took it and Davidson’s story seriously. What could have felt like a run-of-the-mill studio comedy instead feels like the laughter and tears that come with real life. It’s not a perfect film, there are issues present, but it’s shagginess and messier aspects just make it feel more raw. Just like the primal scream from Davidson that it represents.
It can be hard to find one’s place in the world. There are a million different things pulling us in a million different directions, making it feel impossible to look out for our own mental health. Tied to the things we were, are, and especially aren’t but aspire to be. There is no easy solution and there never will be. The King of Staten Island offers a hard one: finding happiness is a journey. With every step in our pursuit of happiness, we shed another piece of the pain weighing us down – making the next step a little lighter. The King of Staten Island speaks for a generation, by listening to it.