A caution for anyone planning on renting The King of Staten Island — this film is not a laugh out loud comedy, at least not the way the trailers want you to think. With constant references to Judd Apatow’s previous films like Trainwreck or Knocked Up and the fact that the film stars a Saturday Night Live cast member, you would be forgiven for assuming this film would be another vehicle for yet another up and coming comedian. But The King of Staten Island is much more than a star creation machine for Pete Davidson (though if there is any justice in movies, this film will launch him to new heights in his career). It’s a raw, refreshing look at mental health and being a twenty-something who doesn’t have life figured out yet. It’s funny, absolutely, with Davidson’s deadpan humor providing many of the laughs. But it also wears its heart on its sleeve, bringing the audience into the story and getting us to root for the characters to figure it all out.
The King of Staten Island follows Davidson as Scott, the 24-year-old son of Margie (Marisa Tomei, excellent as always). When Scott was seven, his firefighter father died in a hotel fire, and Scott has been haunted by his ghost ever since. With younger sister Claire (Maude Apatow) graduating from high school and heading to college, his thus far stable life of smoking weed with his friends and practicing his amateur tattoo art begins to unravel. His best friend/friend with benefits Kelsey (Bel Powley) decides she wants more from their relationship and leaves him, and Margie finds a new boyfriend in Ray (Bill Burr), a gruff firefighter who does not get along with Scott. On top of it all, it seems everyone in his life is waiting for Scott to grow up and become something resembling the hero his father was — including Scott. He just doesn’t know how to get there.
Watching Scott slowly let his own life go by without him is hard at first. He harbors dreams of opening a tattoo parlor that doubles as a restaurant, but doesn’t back up his dreams with action. He resents his sister for being able to move on and do the things he can’t do, but doesn’t see how he could make his own dreams a reality if he tried. His snark hides pain and fear, and Davidson manages to show both sides of Scott. He’s the type of person who jokes that he’s stupid to get ahead of someone else saying it first. He worries he’s a burden on everyone around him and yet continues to act in a way that guarantees that he will be.
Davidson is great in scenes where Scott’s recklessness collides with his sadness and anger and causes him to lash out. But I found that both he and the film work best in the quiet moments where you see who Scott really is. When he walks Ray’s kids to school (Ray’s idea of giving him responsibility) and ends up befriending them, you see how his mental walls fall away. He doesn’t treat them like kids, and in return they give him affirmation that he’s more than just a local screw-up. With them, he’s not the hero firefighter’s kid stuck in his mom’s basement. He’s just Scott, and he can be himself.
The film is obviously a personal one for Davidson, with many details drawn from his real life. Apatow has previously said in interviews that the film essentially depicts what Davidson’s real life would have been like if he hadn’t found comedy to cope with his own issues. It is cathartic to watch, and you feel the passion everyone behind the camera had for the project. The rest of the cast is fantastic as well. Marisa Tomei shows how Margie’s care for her son led her away from herself, while gradually giving her her life back as the film goes on. Bill Burr also excels as Ray, whose tough love demeanor masks his own worries about the direction his life has taken. One of the best scenes in the film is between Tomei, Burr, and Davidson as Margie finally gets fed up with the antics of both men. It’s hilarious, but it strikes an emotional chord.
Davidson understands that life is messy. One minute you’re laughing about something dumb a friend said, and in the next you’re wondering if you’ve messed your life up for good. If there’s one thing this film does well, it’s showing how having mental illness and being young and directionless really look. Scott is depressed, but he’s not like the people with depression we usually see onscreen who exhibit only sadness all the time. Scott can be sad and angry and hilarious and kind all at once, and watching Davidson expertly show the audience all of Scott’s layers is a treat.
2020 will hopefully be Pete Davidson’s year to shine. After several years of being a popular but horribly underutilized cast member on SNL (and whose mental illness is often the punchline of the sketches he’s in), it’s his time to break out. Between this film and the Sundance favorite Big Time Adolescence (watch it on Hulu if you can. It’s amazing), Davidson is proving himself as an actor as well as a comedian. The King of Staten Island heralds Pete Davidson’s arrival in film and signals he’s ready for the big leagues, delivering a funny, heartfelt story with great performances.
The King of Staten Island is available to rent on most on-demand platforms.