Comedian Pete Davidson is perhaps best known for his whirlwind former engagement to singer Ariana Grande and for being a “Saturday Night Live” (“SNL”) cast member since 2014. The new film “The King of Staten Island,” released on-demand on June 12, gives him the chance to show off both his acting and writing chops.
On “SNL,” he frequently appears as himself on “Weekend Update,” often commentating on events as the show’s “Resident Young Person” (he was the first “SNL” member to be born in the 1990s). His character Chad, a young man who has simple responses to questions and instructions, has recurred in several sketches, doing everything from serving as Jennifer Lopez’s roadie to being trusted with a hero’s journey in a Narnia-like land. Outside of “SNL,” he plays side characters in films, as in the 2018 Netflix rom-com “Set It Up,” and does standup comedy.
“The King of Staten Island” is his best project to date. He hasn’t had a role quite like it before, but if his performance is any indication, he deserves to have more. The film was co-written by Davidson himself, Judd Apatow (“Knocked Up”) and Dave Sirus (“SNL”), and directed by Apatow. It is unlike anything I have seen from Davidson or Apatow thus far, although, full disclosure, my knowledge of Apatow’s oeuvre is limited to “This Is 40” and an episode of “Freaks and Geeks” that I can’t remember. Based on the trailers of his movies, I simply don’t think of him as a director of, for lack of a better word, mature work. But, unexpectedly, “The King of Staten Island” rests firmly in the center of a drama-comedy Venn diagram.
Davidson stars as Scott Carlin, a 24-year-old, unemployed, pot-smoking high school dropout living with his mother, Margie (Marisa Tomei, “My Cousin Vinny”), and younger sister, Claire (Maude Apatow, “Euphoria”) in Staten Island. His father, a firefighter, died in a hotel fire when Scott was seven. Scott aspires to become a tattoo artist and practices on his friends.
One day, after Claire has left for college, Scott and his friends are hanging out on the beach when a young boy, Harold (Luke David Blumm, “The Walking Dead”), convinces Scott to give him a tattoo. Scott tattoos a line on Harold’s arm, but the pain causes the boy to run away before anything further can happen. Later, the boy and his father, Ray (Bill Burr, “Breaking Bad”), show up at Scott’s house to demand an apology and payment for the tattoo removal, but Ray winds up being attracted to Margie. The two begin a relationship, worrying Scott, who is distrustful of his mother dating another fireman.
In real life, Davidson also hails from Staten Island. Scott Davidson, his deceased father, was also a firefighter, and he died in the line of duty on 9/11. Like his character, Davidson has Crohn’s disease and smokes pot. After breaking up with Grande, Davidson moved back in with his mom (and has been quarantining there, too). Many have therefore been referring to the film as “semi-autobiographical.” Davidson has never shied away from being open about his life in many of his “Weekend Update” appearances, but it is clear “The King of Staten Island” is both a passion project and the closing of a chapter.
I think my favorite part of the film is that Scott doesn’t completely change by the end of it; he’s merely at peace. Hints appear throughout that he is growing up and changing — he gets a job, he doesn’t flake on the kids, he accepts Ray, he starts a real relationship with Kelsey (Bel Powley, “The Morning Show”) — but the journey isn’t neglected for the destination. We also see him do plenty of dumb things, like serve as the lookout on a robbery. Most coming-of-age films are about the journey, sure, but I think Scott doesn’t end the film firmly in adulthood, with problems solved, but rather, in true transition.
In addition, “The King of Staten Island” earnestly captures the effects of grief and mental health on relationships romantic and familial. Scott is terrified of scaring Kelsey away, which is why, for much of the film, he contents himself to remain only “friends with benefits.” Claire feels like she has to keep Scott’s neuroses in check when she’s home, and fears they will spiral out of control once she’s at college. After all, while Scott was seven when their dad died, she was still just a baby; the death has affected her completely differently.
Meanwhile, Scott feels inadequate because his father has been revered and idolized his whole life. His father is finally humanized when Scott meets firemen who served with him and learns about his father’s crazy stunts and impulsiveness, traits echoed in himself. His acceptance of his father’s death gives him the peace to connect with Ray and, later, Kelsey.
Davidson’s performance is strong, perhaps aided by his openness about his personal life in his standup and on “SNL.” It is clear, however, that despite the similarities between Pete and his character, he is not merely playing himself, but truly acting (and very believably).
But it’s not just Davidson who knocks it out of the park. Powley’s Kelsey is three-dimensional, and the British actress totally fooled me with her New York accent. Moisés Arias (Igor) is a far cry from his “Hannah Montana” days, and I hope to see him get more work as an adult. One of the funniest moments in the movie is when a kid insults Igor. Scott and all his friends are quick to say, “Hey! You don’t get to make fun of him! Only we can do that!” which is such a true sentiment.
Perhaps the biggest scene-stealer is Alexis Rae Forlenza in, according to IMDb, her film debut. Forlenza plays Ray’s young daughter, Kelly, whom Scott is tasked with walking to school. Scott is not immediately impressed with Harold’s superhero creations, but Kelly’s singing wins him over. Her teacher is rather confused and a little concerned when Scott drops her off to class, and questions Kelly about whether she’s okay, which the girl answers enthusiastically. The teacher turns back to Scott, who humorously replies, “Oh, I trained her in the car; she’s not gonna break.” She only appears in a brief montage following the scene, but between her vocal chops, adorable face and earnest delivery, it’s easy to applaud her alongside the veteran performers for a job well done.
Considering my preconceived notions about Apatow’s work, I was pleasantly surprised with the film’s direction as well. Apatow treats the serious subject matter with the gravity it requires, but without diminishing the lighter moments. It is a win for both him and Davidson, and I definitely recommend renting it for your next movie night.