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‘The King of Staten Island’ Hilariously Tackles the Ache of Powering Through Grief – Review

Similar to last year’s Honey Boy, which provided Shia Labeouf with some catharsis as he explored his tumultuous upbringing with his father, The King of Staten Island does the same for Pete Davidson but in the way he knows best, with a lot of laughs. His comedic style has always been saturated with dark, self-deprecating humor and that continues as he reflects on his hometown of Staten Island in this semi-autobiographical film.

Any writer reflecting on their life has to avoid it becoming self indulgent, but Davidson and Judd Apatow approached this script with unabashed sincerity. This tender reimagining of Davidson’s life, had he not discovered comedy, is filled to the brim with heart. Centering on his style of comedy in the dialogue makes this his, without a doubt. It creates a special, unique way of telling this story and keeping it candid. 

(Courtesy of Universal)

Pete Davidson is an extremely underrated comedic actor. His name is most heard in reference to his high profile relationships and mental health struggles before people talk about his actual talent. In 2014, at the age of 20, he became the youngest person to join the cast of Saturday Night Live since the iconic Eddie Murphy. Clearly, Lorne Michaels and his peers saw something in Davidson from the very beginning. Now at 26, whilst working at SNL, he has been in films such as Trainwreck, The Dirt, Set It Up, Big Time Adolescence, and he’s apart of James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad, which is currently in post-production and set to release in August of next year. 

In The King of Staten Island, Davidson plays man-child Scott who, at 24, just doesn’t have his life together in the slightest. We’re introduced to him in the opening scene by a slight suicide attempt of him closing his eyes while driving on the freeway, and that alone gives us a sense of his reckless behavior and lack of awareness for his own safety and well-being. He has no sense of responsibility, and we’re along with him as he creates a deeper connection with himself, finding confidence in what he wants out of life and getting through trauma from losing his dad at a young age.

Along the way, we meet an incredible ensemble of actors that make up vibrant supporting characters. We have Marisa Tomei, playing his mother who has a big heart and has spent time putting the focus on others before herself. His sister (Maude Apatow), is a responsible college student puzzled by the actions of her older brother. His friends deal with some of the same things he does, getting high in living rooms and making questionable decisions. Davidson finds solace in a firehouse, with a paternal-like comfort that starts off as a bumpy relationship with his mother’s boyfriend, Ray (Bill Burr).

The King of Staten Island
(Courtesy of Universal)

It’s ironic because he spends the entire film talking down on firefighters. His deceased father, in the film and in real life, was a fireman. It’s interesting to see this as the pivotal shift in the film and think about how it could also pertain to his real life. The place he blamed on his father’s death is also the one that created a change in his world-view, allowing him to move forward with his life. This acts as a loving tribute to his father, and an act of him powering through his grief.

I’ve never been to Staten Island, but the atmosphere they created made me feel like I’ve known this town my whole life. We’re experiencing that world with them- his family, the diners at every restaurant, even background characters all truly seem to be so familiar with the “forgotten borough”, an issue that is brought up by Scott’s friend with benefits Kelsey, played by Bel Powley, as she says she wants to work for city planning and reinvent the way people see Staten Island. We understand why each person is the way they are through this reflection of the town. 

This setting is a portrait of a place that is misunderstood and looked down on. We go through this time of life with everyone who lives there, and the conclusion fulfills most of their journeys in a satisfying way. Apatow is known for his long comedies, and with a runtime that is over two hours, The King of Staten Island is no exception. But, with the success of these interwoven arcs from the great supporting characters and our connection with Scott, it never feels bloated or drawn out.

(Courtesy of Universal)

It’s balanced and genuine, we feel what our protagonist does. We’re looking at everything through his lens, the runtime is utilized to its full potential and it tonally makes sense, jumping from humor and trauma seamlessly because that’s how he sees the world and deals with his own issues. As an audience, we understand. 

This is a straightforward comedy-drama, but what makes it so special is that Apatow is at his best when he’s exploring relationships with genuine, hilarious sincerity- familial, romantic, and personal. I think this is his most mature work yet and I’m looking forward to everything Davidson does in his career going forward. The King of Staten Island shows that he can be an unexpectedly heartfelt, charming leading man.

I would highly recommend this film, it was recently released on VOD due to the COVID-19 pandemic but had an initial release in theaters. I believe there is so much to take out of this film, it reflects on the pain of dealing with the trauma and mental health in a way that feels comforting, with an emphasis on growth and the struggle of moving forward from these experiences.

The King of Staten Island is available on VOD.

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