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 Jim Caroll in The Basketball Diaries. Both films would explore the damage, family breakdown and complexity of adolescent addiction twenty-four years apart; however, the public and critical reception could not have been more different. This may be rooted in time, but it’s also possible that the differing appraisal of both movies 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. In contrast, in 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, they also show differences in how class and socio-economic background affect the individual addiction journey. For example, while Beautiful Boy focuses heavily on therapy, The Basketball Diaries focuses on community and individual action. These differences highlight the gulf and divide in treatment and recovery that social class brings.
READ MORE: BEAUTIFUL BOY
Could these socio-economic differences between both films have affected the differing critical reception? Or have we become more understanding of addiction over the past twenty years? The answer is complicated, but what is true is that while Beautiful Boy was widely praised, The Basketball Diaries suffered a critical mauling. In the mid-90s, there was still a commonly held view that addiction and drug-related crime sat within the underclass of our cities, despite earlier films like Less Than Zero attempting 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 for the better. 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 of the 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 Kalvert’s film are sadly timeless in their exploration of inner-city poverty and addiction.
In The Basketball Diaries, we watch as young Jim (DiCaprio) goes from being an aspiring writer and basketball player to a shell of himself due to addiction. While at the same time, his friendship group struggle to find their way out of the poverty that engulfs them turning to crime, drugs and prostitution for money. Here the boy’s run-down neighbourhood, failed Catholic education, and drug-fuelled streets provide little opportunity for escape; their only route out held within their sporting ability and the chance that someone may spot their potential.
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The Basketball Diaries offers an unflinching portrait of a city neighbourhood that is, to all intents and purposes, a prison for the young people in its care. Here drugs serve as a mental escape route while only further incarcerating them. On its release in 1995, many were quick to criticise The Basketball Diaries as a mere shock tactic while also challenging the controversial themes of school abuse. Many of these scenes continue to haunt the film today, especially Jim’s dream of walking into school with a loaded gun and dispensing with the teachers, an uncomfortable omen of what was to come just four years later in Columbine. At this point, The Basketball Diaries vanished into obscurity, only to reappear many years later with cuts.
But this scene aside, Kalvert’s film offers us a powerful exploration of the isolated and disenfranchised communities many young people continue to live in. Here the reality of drugs as a tool for escape is all too real, even today.
READ MORE: LESS THAN ZERO
The Basketball Diaries offers no easy solutions to the journey we take alongside Jim and his friends, it’s narrative both rough and relentless. But while this may be disturbing, it is also a reality for many inner-city kids. Here The Basketball Diaries embraces and reflects a community’s power in taking action to support young people when the state is absent and uncaring. Interestingly, 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)”.
The Basketball Diaries openly challenges the stereotypes surrounding race, drug addiction and inner-city crime. Here we have a white boy saved from disaster by a black man who understands his community and fights for change from within; Ebert clearly didn’t understand the racial profiling of the time or the stereotypes that haunted inner-city black Americans. Or maybe he did but was trying to be clever? Either way, he is wrong on so many levels.
THE BASKETBALL DIARIES (1995) New Line film with Leonardo DiCaprio
The relationship between Jim and his mother (Lorraine Branco) is also heartbreaking as it unpicks the choices parents on low incomes must face in attempting to help their kids. This is never more powerfully displayed than in a scene where Jim’s mother decides she can no longer help her son and needs to close the door on his pleas for money. The sheer emotional power and fear of their confrontation leave me numb to this day.
The Basketball Diaries still carries an enormous emotional and social power twenty-four years after its release. Jim Caroll’s story challenges us to explore the root causes of inner-city drug use and crime and the lack of state intervention in solving these. There are no expensive therapists or plush residential treatment centres for these kids, just the hands of community members who want to help and heal. Maybe this reality is still too close to home for many.
Director: Scott Kalvert