In his latest film, “The King of Staten Island,” director Judd Apatow collaborates with Pete Davidson to deliver a brutally honest portrayal of every burnout’s most dreaded question: “What are you going to do with your life?”
The movie tells the story of Scott Carlin (Pete Davidson), a 24-year-old aspiring tattoo artist living with his single mother, Margie (Marisa Tomei) and college-bound sister Claire (Maude Apatow). He spends most of his days smoking weed with his friends and using them as canvases for his amateur tattoo art. His firefighter father died in a hotel fire when Scott was seven, a traumatic experience that leaves him paranoid about his own fate and others’ intentions. When his mother starts dating firefighter Ray (Bill Burr), Scott struggles with the unexpected and, for him, unwarranted responsibilities of a new man invading his life.
Although the story is fictional, it is loosely based on Davidson’s own experiences: the Staten Island native lost his father on 9/11 and he deals with many of the same mental health issues as his character. I’ve seen Pete Davidson’s stand-up, SNL appearances and his Hulu film “Big Time Adolescence,” and appreciated his apathetic-yet-awkward persona. He’s lanky and unsure of himself, yet unafraid to speak his mind, which creates relatable and effortlessly unpretentious comedy. Admittedly, the actor’s one-liners are much funnier on stand-up shows and skits. But “The King of Staten Island” is more than a comedy.
Apatow’s experience has long been grounded in romantic comedy, like his 2005 movie “The 40 Year-Old Virgin” and the outrageous “chick flick” “Bridesmaids,” which he produced. But with “The King of Staten Island,” as he revealed in production notes, he wanted to primarily create a drama that incorporated elements of comedy. As part of a virtual roundtable with Apatow, The Chronicle had the opportunity to interview the director about his upcoming movie.
“We were trying to make a fictional movie that was emotionally truthful,” Apatow said in the interview. “Even though most of the movie is made-up and didn’t happen, when it was over you would feel like you really got to know Pete and what he’s been through.”
Davidson doesn’t drop his cynical stoner persona, but provides insight into his experiences with a much more raw and emotional performance. He doesn’t put on a show for the screen; he instead develops a genuine connection with the other characters and cracks jokes for them. He uses humor in heated arguments to diffuse situations and attempts to comfortably address uncomfortable topics. This authentic performance shows how, for many, comedy is more than entertainment. It’s a coping mechanism.
“Pete is so interesting as a person: he’s this big-hearted guy who has clearly been through a lot, and we’re all rooting for him because we feel like him in some way,” Apatow said. “He’s so funny and darkly comedic and willing to talk about things that most people want to keep hidden. I think that’s what draws people to him.”
Davidson has discussed his experience with borderline personality disorder, and “The King of Staten Island” displays how mental health issues interfere with personal relationships. Throughout the movie, Scott’s insistence that “there’s is something wrong with” him prompts him to reject love and support with aggressive insecurity. He makes impulsive decisions — a reckless habit — because of his disconnect with reality.
As I watched him blindly drive down the highway, I didn’t feel scared for Scott. Rather, I felt connected to him: I reflect on every time I’ve been tempted to jerk the wheel and find comfort in the potential to transform pain into humor: to turn pain into art.
“All of this is very sensitive material, and I feel like so many young people are dealing with [mental health issues] in numbers much larger than when I was kid,” Apatow said. “I hope that the movie is helpful in some way, as it is about how somebody gets more support and learns more about themselves, and hopefully evolves in their development.”
Self-discovery is the central theme of nearly every teen blockbuster, but rarely is this development represented in one’s early 20s. Moving up in the workplace or getting settled into a serious relationship, sure, but rarely is there such an emphasis on developing as an individual during this period.
“The King of Staten Island,” however, is an extension of the coming-of-age film: it maintains adolescent confusion and self-doubt without the oft-expected radical transformation. It reflects the internal struggles of young adulthood: expectations to fulfill unfamiliar responsibilities, dealing with lingering adolescent problems and managing your vices without the excuses gifted by naivety among them. “The King of Staten Island” showcases the frustration of failure when you’re not trying to save the world or others or even yourself — you’re just trying to make it.
Although these pressures are nothing new, social media and economic uncertainty has exacerbated their effects. Scott’s intense concerns and paranoia are representative of the stress defining younger generations.
“I think the stress and anxiety of the social media generation is really intense. When I was first starting, no one paid any attention to us,” Apatow expressed. “We were young people wandering the world with no one tracking us, nobody judging us and we didn’t know what anyone else was doing. It was a much less stressful young person’s life than what it is now, where everyone, in a way, is starring in their own Instagram TV show. [This movie demonstrates that] pressure to pull it off. The pressure to succeed, the pressure to do well and not be seen as an idiot. You know people are paying attention — or you think they are. They may not really care, but you have a feeling of being judged and observed in a way that I don’t think [our generation] did.”
Dealing with this stress may mean smoking and tattooing your increasingly impatient friends. It may mean finding direction in the camaraderie of a firehouse. Or, it may mean learning how to accept love and take responsibility when it feels like the world is against you — even if your world is the forgotten borough.
“The King of Staten Island” will be available on demand June 12.
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