The Basketball Diaries (1995)

The Basketball Diaries spotlight classic article is linked to our recent review of Beautiful Boy

Long before Timothee Chalamet’s realistic and expressive performance in Beautiful Boy, Leonardo DiCaprio brought us a stunning portrait of a teenage Jim Caroll in The Basketball Diaries. Both films explore the damage, family breakdown and complexity of adolescent addiction; however, the public and critical reception could not have been more different to both films. This may be rooted in time, but it’s also possible that the differing appraisal of both is rooted in the narrative journey taken. In The Basketball Diaries, we have a young man born into a single-parent household in a challenging inner-city neighbourhood. Whereas with Beautiful Boy, we have a young man born into privilege, his options in life an open door, his addiction a fall from grace.

While both films expertly navigate the darkness and isolation of drug addiction and the fact that drug dependency does not discriminate based on class. Both also show distinct differences in how class and socio-economic background affect the addiction journey. For example, while Beautiful Boy focuses heavily on therapy, The Basketball Diaries focuses on community and individual action. These differences only act to highlight the gulf and divide in treatment and recovery that social class brings.


Is it possible that these socio-economic differences between both films played to the differing public reception of both? Beautiful Boy was widely praised on release, while The Basketball Diaries suffered a critical mauling and slipped into the mists of time. This question is complex and rooted in the perception of drug use inherent in communities even today. After all, there is still a widely held view that the problem of drugs and drug-related crime sit within the underclass of our cities. While the affluent are only pulled into the world through bad luck, partying or a need for escape. Here, the middle and upper classes are victims while the lower classes bring it upon themselves due to their lifestyle.

While it’s difficult to draw conclusions on this due to the time that has elapsed since The Basketball Diaries release, and the change in social attitudes, one thing is beyond doubt. The Basketball Diaries provided us with a profoundly unsettling viewing experience, challenging its audience by reflecting many deep-seated realities of addiction that were, and maybe still are, taboo.

THE BASKETBALL DIARIES 1995 New Line film with Leonardo DiCaprio

Based on the 1978 memoir by the poet and musician Jim Caroll, The Basketball Diaries takes the 1960s setting of the book and moves it to 90s inner-city America. While this choice may appear to create a sharp detour from Caroll’s memoir, in reality, both Carroll’s book and the film offer a nuanced and sadly timeless exploration of inner-city poverty and addiction.

In The Basketball Diaries, we watch as young Jim (DiCaprio) goes from an aspiring writer and basketball player to a shell of himself in the arms of addiction. While at the same time, his friendship group struggle to find their way out of the poverty that engulfs them. Here the boy’s run-down neighbourhood, lacklustre education and drug-fuelled socialising provide little opportunity for escape. The only route out held within sport, employment or the gift of a chance.  


The Basketball Diaries offers an unflinching portrayal of a city neighbourhood that acts as a prison for the young people in its care, with drugs serving as a mental escape route while further incarcerating them. These themes challenge the audience with a vivid portrayal of addiction. At the time, many were quick to criticise this depiction of addiction as a shock tactic. While at the same time, attacking the controversial scenes of a fantasy school shooting; in fact, these scenes continue to haunt the film today, acting as an uncomfortable omen of what was to come just four years later in Columbine.

However, for many isolated and disenfranchised young people in low-income neighbourhoods, the reality of drugs and escapism portrayed in the film was all too real. Here it is possible the criticism levelled at The Basketball Diaries was rooted in its all too uncomfortable themes. Interestingly, My Own Private Idaho also suffered from many poor reviews on its release four years earlier, again for being too dark. In reality, Idaho also shone a light on a subject matter that many critics and audiences were not ready to explore.  


The Basketball Diaries offers no secure solutions on the journey we take alongside Jim and his friends; its narrative, both rough and relentless. But while this may be disturbing, it is also a reality born from the experience of many inner-city kids. For example, Jim’s cold turkey recovery at the hands of a local man, ‘Reggie’ (Ernie Hudson), is incredibly powerful. Here The Basketball Diaries embraces and reflects a community’s power in taking action to support its young people—the state, both absent and uncaring as a vehicle for change. Meanwhile, The Basketball Diaries openly challenges stereotypes surrounding race, drug addiction and inner-city crime. After all, here we have a white boy saved from disaster by a black man who understands his community and fights for change from within.

The Basketball Diaries
THE BASKETBALL DIARIES 1995 New Line film with Leonardo DiCaprio and Mark Wahlberg

Equally challenging is the relationship between Jim and his mother (Lorraine Branco), where the damage and heartache of addiction are laid bare. This is never more powerfully displayed than in a scene where Jim’s mother decides she can no longer help her son. The emotional power and fear of their confrontation, leaving the viewer numb.

Of course, there are weaknesses in The Basketball Diaries, from a relatively quick ending that feels far too rounded and smooth to an occasional lack of focus. But in truth, all addiction dramas suffer from the challenge of deciding where things must end. Here many opt to leave the viewer with a positive walk from the cinema following the darkness, with the possible exception of Less Than Zero 1987.

But this weakness aside, The Basketball Diaries still carries a mighty punch in its intensity and drama. Here Jim Caroll’s story challenges its audience and broader themes of public perception. While at the same time providing us with a commentary on 90s inner-city America that still feels sadly relevant today. It’s possible these themes were too challenging on the film’s release as audiences and critics ran from the horror of inner-city addiction. However, whatever the factors that led to this film disappearing into the mists of time, The Basketball Diaries is worthy of re-appraisal.

Director:  Scott Kalvert

Cast: Leonardo DiCaprioLorraine BraccoMarilyn Sokol, James Madio, Patrick McGaw, Mark Wahlberg, Bruno Kirby