Long before Timothee Chalamet’s realistic and emotive performance in Beautiful Boy. Leonardo DiCaprio took on the role of a teenage Jim Carol in the film The Basketball Diaries. Both films exploring the damage, family breakdown and complexity of teenage addiction. While both centred on lived experience.
However, there are differences between these films and their narrative. With Jim Carol we have young man born into a single parent household in a challenging neighbourhood. The result being a community where sport was often the only release from poverty. While with Beautiful Boy we have a young man born into privilege, his options in life an open door.
Both films expertly navigate the darkness and isolation of drug addiction. While clearly showing how addiction does not discriminate based on class. However, both also show distinct differences in how communities from different socio-economic backgrounds deal with addiction. For example, Beautiful Boy focusses on therapy, while The Basketball Diaries focusses on community driven action. Demonstrating the gulf and divide in drug therapy that social class brings.
Meanwhile, both films have captivating lead performances from young rising stars. With DiCaprio aged 21 in the The Basketball Diaries and Chalamet aged 23 in Beautiful Boy. Each film enabling its young star to rise above the teen fandom they created.
Interestingly, however, there is a distinct difference over time in each films public reception. While Beautiful Boy was largely praised, The Basketball Diaries slipped into the mists of time, largely dismissed by critics on its release in 1995.
So let us take a look back at the The Basketball Diaries. A film that provided a deeply unsettling viewing experience. While challenging its audience with some deep seated realities that were in themselves taboo in 1995.
Based on the 1978 memoir from poet and musician Jim Carol. The Basketball Diaries takes the 1960s setting of the book and transplants the narrative to 1990s America. This may seem like a distinct jump for a book set during the beginnings of the opioid epidemic that swept American cities. However in reality both book and film offer a nuanced exploration of inner city poverty and addiction that is to a great extent timeless.
In The Basketball Diaries we watch as Jim goes from an aspiring writer and basketball player to a shell of himself in the arms of addiction. DiCaprio navigating this descent with one of his finest onscreen performances. While his friendship group (including an outstanding Mark Wahlberg) equally struggle to find their way out of the poverty that engulfs them. In a run- down neighbourhood with limited opportunity for escape.
Here The Basketball Diaries offers an unflinchingly portrayal of a city neighbourhood that acts as prison for the young people in its care. With drugs acting as a mental escape route, while also further incarcerating those who enter their world. At the time of its release, this vivid and challenging portrayal of addiction was criticised by many critics as a shock tactic. Many stating that it offered little to the overarching story. Equally the scenes of Jim imagining a school shooting where castigated as overly violent and unnecessary. With many lawsuits levelled against the film in the subsequent years after its release.
However, for many isolated and disenfranchised young people in low income neighbourhoods the reality of drugs and escapism portrayed was all too real. The criticism of the film equally relating to a middle class consensus in 90s America, that films should be easy and free of challenge. In fact My Own Private Idaho also suffered from many poor reviews on its release, the reasons apparently relating to its ‘grim’ and ‘dark’ content.
It is fair to say that The Basketball Diaries offers no easy solutions on the journey you take with Jim and his friends; its narrative both rough and relentless. But while this may be disturbing, it is also a reality born of experience for many inner city kids.
While Jim’s cold turkey recovery at the hands of a local man ‘Reggie’ (Ernie Hudson) is both beautiful and powerful in equal measure. Demonstrating the power of a community in taking action to support a young person in need. While also challenging many 90s stereotypes surrounding race, drug addiction and inner city crime. With a white boy saved from disaster by a black man who understands the community he inhabits.
Equally the relationship between Jim and his hard working mother (Lorraine Branco) demonstrates the damage and heartache of addiction. Demonstrated in scenes where Jim’s mother decides she can no longer help her son. The emotional power and fear leaving the viewer numb.
There are however, weaknesses in The Basketball Diaries. Mainly centring on a quick ending that feels too rounded and easy. But it is also true, that all addiction dramas suffer from an equal challenge in deciding the point in which things end. While attempting to leave the viewer with positive walk from from the cinema.
This minor problem does not however, distract from a truly powerful film. One that not only challenges the public perception of addiction, but also does so with an unflinching commentary of 90s America.
The Basketball Diaries may have been too challenging for the time it was released. Or alternatively, there may have been a reluctance to accept the true nature of inner city addiction. However, whatever the factors that led to this film disappearing into the mists of time. This is a film worthy of re-appraisal.
Director: Scott Kalvert