Starring “Saturday Night Live’s” Pete Davidson, “The King of Staten Island” is a raw, emotional and comedic look at his character Scott’s life, based around Davidson’s real-life struggles of losing his father as a firefighter in the attacks on September 11.
The writers expertly weave many real-life elements of Davidson’s personal life and public mental health struggles with his uniquely blunt humor, which indeed carries the movie. Let’s just say thank goodness he picked up a microphone because “The King Of Staten Island” takes you on a journey into what may have been.
Scott lives in his mother Margie (Marisa Tomei)’s basement. His father was a firefighter who was killed when Scott was younger, leaving him and his younger sister behind. His life largely revolves around smoking marijuana and convincing his friends to let him tattoo them. The only problem is Scott’s artwork is what you may call “inconsistent,” so his friends have grown weary of letting him add any more artwork to their bodies. He’s having a sexual relationship with his friend, Kelsey, who wants more from the relationship than just sex. The writers use his awkward humor to explain away his commitment issues.
We also learn via their sexual encounter that Scott is on antidepressants, something he projects as being extremely aloof about. However, it is in these moments that the movie shines in another way altogether. The darkness that he feels seems ever-present, and although there are attempts to disguise it with humor, if you look, it’s very much there for all to see. He almost perfectly embodies borderline personality disorder (BPD) (which Davidson has in real life) without going so far as to name it.
Scott’s sister Claire is about to graduate high school, and even this is something Scott can’t manage without drama. Not wanting to wear his dad’s suit, he again explodes, yet once more with humor. He begrudgingly attends the graduation, but you can sense that Scott is truly sad his sister is leaving while he stays behind treading water.
After an incident involving Scott attempting to give a young boy a tattoo (he was just happy someone was going to let him tattoo them, not remotely thinking of the consequences, another hallmark of borderline personality disorder), he inadvertently introduces his mom to her soon-to-be new boyfriend, Ray, after Ray (the young boy’s father) arrives at the house to scream at Scott.
Ray asks Margie out and they date secretly before Margie is ready to tell Scott. When she finally does, he is outraged that she would date another fireman, believing it somehow disrespects the memory of his own father.
After a series of misadventures, including being involved in an attempted robbery, Scott ends up connecting with Roy and other firefighters who worked with his father. The men who worked with him tell Scott stories that humanize his dad. He forms a strong bond with Ray, who agrees to let him tattoo his back under certain conditions.
Although mental health and grief are themes we can see throughout the movie (often hidden in the humor) there were three very powerful moments that resonated with me as someone with borderline personality disorder.
The first is when, early in the movie, Scott and Kelsey have just finished having sex, and he explains to her why she shouldn’t want to be with him.
“There’s something wrong with me mentally, I make insane impulsive decisions,” he says. “I’m scared of myself.”
In this moment, you can see that he cares about her, but that his own mental ill health scares him too much to commit or trust someone to look after themselves in a relationship.
This scene resonated with me on a very personal level. A key indicator of BPD is a pattern of unstable relationships and for me, this has been an extremely difficult challenge. Scott sees himself as almost unlovable and seems to genuinely feel Kelsey is better off without him. That feeling is something I have personally struggled with during my journey. Not just in an intimate sense, but also with friends. I have often felt I am too damaged, that no one would want to be close to me because of the “crazy” Scott describes. Like his character, it almost feels like I am doing the person a favour by staying away.
The second moment is when Scott returns to Kelsey and very much manipulates her into sleeping with him so that he can have somewhere to stay. He is just destroying everything close to him without meaning to and doesn’t know how to stop. In this instance, it is Kelsey who has had enough. She screams, “You make me feel crazy! You are so crazy that you make everyone around you feel fucking crazy!” I think for anyone struggling with their mental health, this scene might be hard to watch.
While in this instance Scott lets his “crazy” out to play — and it absolutely affects the characters around him — sometimes things aren’t so overt. I was rejected by my best friend of 17 years about three years ago, and I felt like Scott must have felt in this moment. Not only was I unwell and needed support, but I was made to feel like my illness was the cause of everything going wrong, which I know not to be true. It is incredibly hard to know you are unwell and not be able to stop the whirlwind going on around you. Unlike myself, Scott’s character is much more dramatic in the way his distress presents. He makes no effort to filter himself and covers his struggle with comedy, which has effectively become his armor.
The third and final moment that really touched me (and yes, I was in tears by this point) was right at the end. Scott and his mom are talking, she is telling him more about his dad. He says to his mom, “I’m sorry that I’ve been so difficult to deal with. I’ll try and get it together, it’s just hard. I think it will always be hard.”
This moment stripped away the comedy of the rest of the film down to the raw and emotional reality of his character’s struggles. For me, this was a profound moment because I have said these words so many times, with the resignation that things will always be hard. This small moment was by far the saddest in the entire film. A moment between mother and son and Scott’s realization that things will always be difficult for him was a truly intimate moment. It’s a moment that could simply pass you by as a mother-son moment, covered over by the edgy comedy that is the rest of the film.
Overall, I would say there are two ways of looking at this film. One through the lens of someone who lives with borderline personality disorder, who can recognize the destruction it can cause and relate to those moments as I did. The nuanced deep understanding Scott has for other’s despite his behaviour is also something I took from the film as a beautiful element of BPD. Despite the whirlwind going on around him, he has a deep love for his family and friends, and his motivations in the film that land him in hot water never really come from a bad place, just a place of confusion and a sense of his character being lost.
But the movie is so cleverly written, it can also be waved away as a clever if not dark at times comedy that was an absolute pleasure to watch.
Davidson stated that this film was like a love letter to his family, and that while he struggled during the writing and filming, he was well supported by his cast and his therapists. He laid his life out to bare in another medium to stand-up and has done it brilliantly.