It’s been exactly a year since The King of Staten Island premiered: the Pete Davidson-Judd Apatow collaboration which delved into the distinct comedy of New York’s forgotten borough. Due to the Covid pandemic, The King of Staten Island missed out on a larger theatrical release but has since found a vibrant life on HBO, re-playing often and available to stream anytime on HBO Max.
During the past year of lockdown, this flick — not exactly a teen movie, but certainly a coming-of-age tale — has become a fixture in my house. It’s fun, Davidson’s wisecracks and goofy grin punctuating lazy days and restless nights. But there’s more at work, too, in this unusual story of millennial angst and family trauma. In fact, I’d argue it’s the film for our times.
The King of Staten Island
The King of Staten Island follows the story of Scott Carlin (Pete Davidson), a 24-year-old wannabe tattoo artist living in his mom’s basement on Staten Island. Scott’s mom (Marisa Tomei) is a widow, working multiple jobs to support two children since the death of her firefighter husband many years earlier. Despite this working-class environment, Scott resists work of any kind. He’s content to smoke weed every day and doodle ink all over his equally inept group of friends. When Scott’s little sister (Maude Apatow) leaves for college, the dynamic of the house shifts, and Scott is left struggling to make a change.
Along the way, there is a spunky love interest (Bel Powley), a looming step-father figure (Bill Burr), a wise old fire chief (Steve Buscemi), and a whole other cast of kooky characters (and big names) that fill out the world of Scott’s Staten Island. An island that was modeled directly after the main actor’s.
Pete Davidson joined the cast of Saturday Night Live in 2014 when he was just 20 years old. And it didn’t take long before the sarcastic wunderkind was the breakout star, widening the appeal of NBC’s classic sketch show to newer, younger audiences. For a taste of Davidson’s true stand-up persona, which draws so heavily from his Staten Island upbringing, check out his viral Weekend Update from the interview above. As SNL began offering Davidson more creative freedom, his following grew until the sardonic New York charmer became something of a household name. (His brief, heavily publicized engagement to pop star Ariana Grande also certainly played a part.)
Davidson’s stand-up persona offers a fitting introduction to his real life. Pete Davidson was born on Staten Island in 1993 to parents Amy and Scott Davidson. But when Pete was just 7 years old, Scott, a New York City firefighter, died while serving in Manhattan during the September 11 attacks on the Twin Towers. Reportedly, Scott was last seen entering the Marriott World Trade Center hotel just before it collapsed. As a young boy, Pete was greatly affected by the shocking loss. Throughout his life, he’s suffered from anxiety, depression, and suicidal tendencies. After self-medicating with drugs for years, more recently, the comedian was diagnosed with a borderline personality disorder. These themes of mental illness feature front-and-center in the semi-autobiographical King of Staten Island, which Davidson co-wrote with David Sirius and producing legend Judd Apatow.
Why It Works
The King of Staten Island essentially occurs as a series of vignettes: short, stand-alone scenes which balance comedy and drama in equal parts. In this case, that segmented format tosses viewers quickly into Scott’s colorful chaos. And is all the better for it. The atmosphere of The King of Staten Island is a bit amorphous as Scott bounces between peers and (dodges) responsibilities. But as his misadventures layer, you’ll find yourself noting the sweet spots. It’s a great re-watch since the chapter-like narrative allows for anyone to jump in at any time — including you, the viewer.
Every time I see The King of Staten Island, I’m awed by its ability to fulfill the lightweight function of a “comfort watch” while delivering a bit of deeper commentary. As you might have noticed, the protagonist’s name in The King of Staten Island directly honors Davidson’s late father. And that carefully named character, Scott, is just a year older than I am. We grew up in similarly post 9/11 worlds, where patriotic heroes were revered while a disaffected youth was left reeling. Lost. Maybe it feels that way for every generation in America. But there are few films that illustrate, let alone target, the elongated adolescence which plagues us anxious 90’s babies. One year later, The King of Staten Island remains a special comedic treat.