Retrospective – Exploring The Basketball Diaries (1995)

Long before Timothee Chalamet’s realistic and emotive performance in Beautiful Boy, Leonardo Di Caprio took on the role of a teenage Jim Carol in the The Basketball Diaries. Both films explore the damage, family breakdown and complexity of teenage addiction, and both are based on the real life stories of two young men living through addiction.

There are differences between these films and their narrative. With Jim Carol we have young man born into a single parent household, a challenging neighbourhood and a society where sport was the only way out of poverty. With Beautiful Boy we have Nicolas Sheff, born into a good neighbourhood with many options for his future life. Both films expertly navigate the darkness and isolation of drug addiction and clearly show how addiction does not discriminate. However, both also show distinct differences in how communities from different socio-economic backgrounds deal with addiction. Beautiful Boy focusses on therapy, while The Basketball Diaries focusses on individualistic action from community members. Both films have captivating lead performances from young rising stars. With Di Caprio aged 21 at the time of release and Chalamet aged 23 at the release of Beautiful Boy. There is however, a distinct difference over time, while Beautiful Boy has been largely praised, The Basketball Diaries has been largely forgotten in the canon of Di Caprio’s performances, and was dismissed by critics on its release in 1995.

The Basketball Diaries is not a comfortable viewing experience, it challenges throughout, as we watch Jim go from an aspiring and creative young man to a shell of himself. Di Caprio navigates this descent with one of his best performances on screen, playing alongside a friendship group (including an outstanding Mark Wahlberg) who all find their routes (positive and negative) in a run- down neighbourhood with limited opportunities.  Unlike Beautiful Boy, The Basketball Diaries unflinchingly shows the descent into an underground world of dealing, theft, prostitution and violence. At the time of its release, this descent was criticised by many critics as a shock tactic, that offered little to the story. However, for young people from lower income families this descent was often all too real, especially in major cities. It could be argued that critics of the time preferred a clean and easy story of addiction, interestingly My Own Private Idaho also suffered from some poor reviews on its original release, for similar reasons of being too ‘grim’ and ‘dark’.  

Its depiction of a catholic school system is unwavering in its critique, showing young men desperate to escape but limited in escape routes that are viable, with sport the only credible option, something that is clearly understood by those wishing to take advantage of local young men.    

The Basketball Diaries offers no easy solutions on the journey you take with Jim and his friends; it is tough and relentless, with the neighbourhood almost acting as prison for the young people in its care. This may be disturbing, but in reality, it is a truthful portrayal of many inner city areas.

Jim’s cold turkey recovery at the hands of a local man who appreciates his writing ‘Reggie’ played by the outstanding Ernie Hudson is beautiful and powerful in equal measure. These scenes show a community member taking action in supporting a young person in need, while challenging a view of race, drug addiction and inner city culture that many 90’s films were unwilling to do.

Di Caprio’s Jim and Lorraine Branco’s mother truly demonstrate the damage and emotional upheaval of addiction in their relationship; this especially resonates where Jim’s mother decides she can no longer help her son, a scene with immense emotional power, leaving the viewer numb.

There is a clear weakness in The Basketball Diaries represented by a quick ending that feels too rounded and easy, however as with most films exploring addiction there is always a point in which things end, and deciding how to do this is a challenge in most films of this genre. This is an area where Beautiful Boy excels, clearly demonstrating that the recovery journey never ends.

However, this problem does not distract from a truly powerful film that seeks to take its viewers into areas other films of the period were fearful to go.

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 and hard nature of addiction in many poor neighbourhoods. Whatever the factors that led to this film disappearing into the mists of Di Caprio’s early performances, it is well worth a viewing and a re-appraisal of its worth.