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 took on the role of a teenage Jim Carol in the film The Basketball Diaries. Both films explore the damage, family breakdown and complexity of adolescent addiction. While at the same time focussing on lived experience. However, there are differences between these films and their narrative. With Jim Carol, we have a young man born into a single-parent household in a challenging inner-city neighbourhood, a community where sport provided a release from poverty. Whereas 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 focuses on therapy, while The Basketball Diaries focuses 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 Basketball Diaries and Chalamet aged 23 in Beautiful Boy. Both movies allowing their young stars to rise above the teen fandom they created.
Interestingly, however, there is a distinct difference over time in the public reception of both films. While Beautiful Boy was primarily praised, The Basketball Diaries slipped into the mists of time; dismissed by critics on its release in 1995.
So let us take a look back at The Basketball Diaries. A film that provided a deeply unsettling viewing experience. Challenging its audience with deep-seated realities that remained taboo even 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. A choice that may appear to create a sharp jump from a novel set during the beginnings of the opioid epidemic that swept American cities. However, in reality, both book and film offer a nuanced and sadly timeless exploration of inner-city poverty and addiction.
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. With DiCaprio navigating this descent in one of his most exceptional 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 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 those who enter their world. These themes challenge the audience with a vivid and challenging portrayal of addiction, which many quick to criticise the depiction as a shock tactic on release. Stating the films brutal depiction offered little to the overarching story. While equally castigating the scenes of Jim’s fantasy school shooting, a scene that continues to haunt the film with several lawsuits levelled in the 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 film’s criticism equally relates to a middle-class consensus in 90s America that movies should be easy and free of challenge. Interestingly, My Own Private Idaho also suffered from many poor reviews on its release, the reason its ‘grim’ and ‘dark’ content.
It is fair to say that The Basketball Diaries offers no secure solutions on the journey you take with Jim and his friends; it’s narrative both rough and relentless. But while this may be disturbing, it is also a reality born of experience for many inner-city kids. Jim’s cold turkey recovery at the hands of a local man, ‘Reggie’ (Ernie Hudson) both beautiful and powerful in equal measure. Here, a community’s power in taking action to support a young person in need sits centre stage. While also challenging many 90s stereotypes surrounding race, drug addiction and inner-city crime, a white boy saved from disaster by a black man who understands the community he inhabits.
Equally challenging is the relationship between Jim and his hard-working mother (Lorraine Branco), where the damage and heartache of addiction are laid bare. Demonstrated in scenes where Jim’s mother decides she can no longer help her son. The emotional power and fear, leaving the viewer numb. Of course, there are weaknesses in The Basketball Diaries; the quick ending feeling far too rounded and smooth. But all addiction dramas suffer from an equal challenge in deciding the point at which things end, attempting to leave the viewer with a positive walk from the cinema.
But this weakness aside, The Basketball Diaries still carries a mighty punch in both intensity and drama. Challenging its audience and broader public perceptions of addiction. At the same time as providing us with a more general commentary on 90s inner-city America. This may have left The Basketball Diaries too challenging for the time it was released. 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. The Basketball Diaries is a film worthy of re-appraisal.
Director: Scott Kalvert