The Basketball Diaries (1995)


The Basketball Diaries is available on limited edition Blu-ray now.

Before Timothee Chalamet’s gut-wrenching performance in Beautiful Boy, Leonardo DiCaprio brought us an equally powerful portrait of teenage addiction as the young Jim Caroll in The Basketball Diaries (1995). Both films would explore the pain and complexity of adolescent addiction twenty-four years apart from different sides of the socio-economic tracks. In The Basketball Diaries, Jim comes from a single-parent household in a challenging inner-city neighbourhood where opportunity and hope are in short supply. In contrast, Timothée Chalamet’s Nic in Beautiful Boy is a young man born into privilege, his options in life an open door, and his addiction a fall from grace. While both films expertly navigate the darkness, isolation and stark realities of addiction and the long journey to recovery, the danger of the cliff edge faced by both boys couldn’t be more different. Beautiful Boy focuses heavily on therapy, while The Basketball Diaries focuses on community and individual action, highlighting the wealth divide in treatment and recovery.

Could the socio-economic differences between both films have affected each film’s critical reception on its release? Beautiful Boy was widely praised, while The Basketball Diaries suffered a critical mauling. The answer is complicated; in the mid-90s, there was still a commonly held view that addiction and drug-related crime sat within the social underclass of cities, despite earlier films such as Less Than Zero’s attempts to change the conversation. More often than not, the middle and upper classes were seen as victims of addiction and crime, while the lower classes were viewed as having brought it upon themselves due to their lifestyle. Since The Basketball Diaries release, these social attitudes to addiction have changed. So why did The Basketball Diaries fall into obscurity?

Scott Kalvert’s film offers us a profoundly unsettling viewing experience by constantly challenging the audience with many deep-seated realities of addiction that were, and possibly remain, taboo. Based on the 1978 memoir by the poet and musician Jim Caroll, The Basketball Diaries would transfer the 1960s setting of the book to 90s inner-city America, providing us with a timeless commentary on inner-city poverty, addiction and entrapment.

THE BASKETBALL DIARIES (1995) New Line film with Leonardo DiCaprio

In The Basketball Diaries, we watch young Jim (DiCaprio) and his friends struggle to find their way out of the poverty of opportunity that engulfs them, turning to crime, drugs and prostitution for money. Here the boy’s run-down neighbourhood, failed education, and drug-fuelled street scene provides little opportunity for escape; their only route out is held within the hope that someone may spot their creative talents or sporting abilities. The city neighbourhood that Jim and his friends call home is, to all intents and purposes, a prison, with drugs the only quick and easy mental escape. On its release in 1995, many were quick to criticise The Basketball Diaries for its shock tactics while also challenging the controversial themes of school abuse held within Jim’s journey. Many of these scenes continue to haunt the film today, especially Jim’s dream of walking into school with a loaded gun, an uncomfortable omen of what was to come just four years later in Columbine. At this point, The Basketball Diaries would vanish into obscurity, only to reappear many years later with significant cuts. But these scenes serve an important purpose, as Kalvert’ unpicks the isolation and rage of young people who are told they are worthless by a society that views them as mere fodder. While this may be disturbing, it is also a reality for many inner-city kids with nowhere to go and no one to fight their corner but themselves.

In The Basketball Diaries, there is no therapy or expensive rehab, just self-help and a community willing to support young people in the state’s absence. Roger Ebert commented on this by saying: “Jim is saved by a noble black man, who finds him unconscious in a playground, brings him home and puts him through cold turkey (in stories like this, you can always count on a heroic black ex-junkie, scouring the streets for troubled white kids who need to get whupped into shape; there’s just not the same cachet in being saved by a white dude)”. I greatly respect Ebert, but he seemed to lose the plot with this statement. The Basketball Diaries openly challenges the stereotypes surrounding race, drug addiction and inner-city crime. We indeed have a white boy saved from disaster by a black man. But why wouldn’t that be the case? Ebert clearly didn’t understand the racial profiling of the time or the stereotypes that haunted inner-city black Americans. Ernie Hudson’s Reggie takes Jim under his wing, knowing that the road to recovery will be challenging and uncertain. He does precisely what someone else did for him years before; his race is not central to this; his kindness and need to give back are.

THE BASKETBALL DIARIES (1995) New Line film with Leonardo DiCaprio

In Beautiful Boy, much emphasis is placed on the role of the parent in offering unconditional love. Similarly, The Basketball Diaries explores the relationship between Jim and his mother (Lorraine Branco). But unlike Beautiful Boy, Jim’s loving mother also has to contend with poverty alongside her son’s slow fall into addiction. Here The Basketball Diaries is at its most heartbreaking as it unpicks the choices parents on low incomes face in attempting to help their kids. When Jim’s mother decides she can no longer help her son and needs to close the door on her support, he pleads for money and scratches at the door, begging her to let him in. The sheer emotional power of this goodbye leaves me numb to this day as his mum realises she can no longer support him without losing the small amount of comfort she has worked so hard to achieve.

Twenty-four years after its release, Jim Caroll’s story challenges us to unpick the root causes of inner-city drug addiction by exploring the wealth divide in addiction treatment. There are no expensive therapists or plush residential treatment centres, just the loving hands of community members who know they are the last hope for a young person on the verge of permanent collapse. Maybe this reality is still too close to home for many.

Director:  Scott Kalvert

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



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