I want to preface this by saying that, going into the film, I wasn’t all too familiar with Pete Davidson’s work as a comedian on SNL. The little I did see of him, however, I didn’t particularly enjoy at the time. His delivery was always stilted, a little stumbled, and at most times I felt like he was just rambling. Still, despite my previous presumptions of him, while watching this film I tried my best to put aside any former opinions of Davidson’s work and judge the film solely on what is being presented on the screen.
The plot of the film is fairly simple at face value. The beginning of the film starts off with Pete Davidson driving and nearly falling asleep. Judging by the dark circles under his eyes, it gives the impression of someone worn down, tired and a bit depressed. He even zones out to the point where he almost gets into a car accident. The opening scene sets a dark undertone to the rest of the film, despite the comedy sprinkled in throughout almost every scene of the film. Scott, the main character played by Pete Davidson, is the son of a deceased firefighter who died in a fire, and lives with his mother and sister (who goes away to college at the beginning of the film). Issue being, he’s 24, a bit problematic, and his mother seems to give him too much. Still, Scott clearly deals with depression from the death of his father and suffers from a feeling of abandonment. He’s an awkward guy, a little skittish, and incredibly self-destructive. In the film he discovers his mom dating the father of the boy he tattooed (his name is Ray), which is the conflict of the whole film, ends up homeless and living at the firehouse where Scott is taken in by Ray, who’s reluctant after Scott sabotaged Scott’s mother relationship with Ray. Through a few scenes, we discover some of the firefighters knew Scott’s dad and they reminisce together. By the end of the film, Scott finds some new purpose in life after finding some sense of home at the firehouse with Ray.
Let’s begin with the faults of the film. Overall I think the film starts off with a shaky foundation. Through the beginning of the film we’re made privy to a pretty dark and private moment of a worn down and tired Scott. Through the opening scene we begin with the implication the film will be a bit on the darker elements, exploring themes like abandonment issues, depression, and discovering self-worth when no one around you sees it not even yourself. That’s further seen through the entire film in almost every scene where, clearly, Scott deals with depression from his father’s death, and yet no one seems to talk about it. That, or they’re ignoring it, trying to move on in some fucked up way. However, that’s not exactly the film we get. The comedy, at times, is incredibly humorous.
The quicker jokes are where the comedy really comes through, but where it falls apart is when they overextend the joke through simple everyday dialogue. Specifically, Pete Davidson. At times he delivers these clever one-liners, but overextends the joke and essentially beats It dead. Even during the more serious scenes they try to implement Davidson’s cynical comedy, but it kind of falls flat at times. Throughout some scenes you’re not sure whether you’re supposed to be laughing, or cringing. It’s a bit similar to Curb Your Enthusiasm’s Larry David, who finds himself in ridiculous and embarrassing situations that are usually a result of self-sabotage. However, Scott is Larry David without the charm and confidence, leading audiences to watch a jokeresque type persona mope about and find himself abandoned by most of the people around him. I suspect some of my disappointment of the film comes from wanting to see Davidson’s character succeed.
As someone from Staten Island, I found some of the jokes and themes to be more placed within the culture of a suburban borough technically not quite inside or outside New York City, similar to small town films that usually circulate around the main character trying to get out of the town. This theme is repeated through Scott’s friends and even more closely with Scott’s sister, Claire.
Claire, at the beginning of the film, leaves to college 45 minutes away. It is clear Claire is, not exactly the favored child, but certainly the one that gives their mother less trouble. Later on in the film Scott is invited to Claire’s college, and later invited to a party at a bar. Through this scene we see Claire’s confidence and growth rub off on Scott. While on the college campus, Scott flourishes, opening himself up and becoming more confident. He’s around people, college students, who are reinventing themselves, exploring themselves, something Scott doesn’t allow himself to do because he refuses to let go of the hero memory of his father. Scott feels as though he needs to live up to his father and the heroic stories he’s heard of his father ever since Scott was a little boy.
When Scott returns from Claire’s college, he throws himself back into the same self-destructive loop and environment that’s been eating him up and stagnating him. He even goes back to his friends from his neighborhood, who end up going to jail by the end of the film. As someone from Staten island, I found the message of leaving home and allowing yourself to grow powerful. The culture of Staten Island, really, is essentially If you don’t get off the island you’ll never really grow past your own little roots. You’ll be stuck hanging with the same people, dating the same people, and isolating yourself in a little bubble. Of course, it’s not necessarily a bad thing to still hangout with your childhood friends, so long as they’re good people and they’re growing. They even poke fun at this with Scott’s love interest, who he’s known since he was very young. Yeah, in small towns and islands most of the time if you stick around long enough you’ll find everyone’s dated everyone.
Ultimately, though, the heart of the film is to consider what you’re passing on to your kids and being there for your children. This is represented in multiple characters like Scott with his father and mother, and Ray with his own kids. Scott, throughout the film, is troubled because he feels he must live up to his father’s image—the image of a selfless firefighter like saint. That trouble, that guilt, takes on the form of fear to the point where it seems Scott is too afraid to really commit to anything. He doesn’t commit to friends, to a girlfriend, or to an actual job. It isn’t until later in the film he finds out, through a friend of his father played by Steve Buschemi, that his father was, essentially, just as fucked up as himself. It is only after confronting his father’s shadow that he confronts his mother—confessing to her that all he wanted was to humanize his father. In turn, it justifies his own fuck ups, that he’s only human and not a total fuck up. After confronting the true image of his father he is able to confront the reality of himself and his own self-sabotaging personality.
Ray is tied to Scott as somewhat of a stepfather, who represents Scott’s own father. Ray himself sees himself as a pretty good guy, even defending himself when Scott confronts Ray on all the shitty things Ray’s ex-wife told Scott about. He sees himself as the selfless father, the saint, because he’s a firefighter. But when we actually see Ray spend time with his kids, it becomes apparent he hasn’t been spending enough time with them. We see this in the scene where Ray’s son talks about his comic drawings and Scott helping him along—as Ray’s son says, “[Scott] ask my how I am?” In the end of the film, Ray is also forced to confront his own shadows and the reality of his situation—that he’s the absent father that Scott resents and only until he comes to realize his own shadows and demons is he able to become a better father not only to his kids, but Scott himself as we assume Ray and Scott’s mother get back together after the film. It tells us that the role of the father is not just being a financial provider to a family, but an emotional provider as well.
What I found interesting about the film is that it asks us to confront the image of our heroes. As the saying goes, you never want to meet your heroes. But King of Staten Island does something different—something a little grayer. It accepts the fact that, yes, Scott’s father is a hero, but he was also a major fuck up. And just because he dons the firefighter uniform doesn’t necessarily mean he’s a hero. As someone who’s lived on Staten Island, where many people are firefighters, cops, nurses and teachers (things that people often associate with kindness and automatic goodness), I’ve always struggled with growing up on the stories of all those who sacrificed themselves in 9/11 as heroes. I always thought, well, are they really heroes? Does making a selfless sacrifice really, automatically make you a hero? In the end I don’t have an answer and, to be honest, the film doesn’t exactly answer those questions directly. Indirectly, however, it tells the readers to confront the reality of their heroes, the good and the bad versions of them in an effort to humanize them and not ultimately judge them upon their final moments. Essentially, it tells us not to define our heroes as just what their title Is (i.e. cop, firefighter, nurse, teacher, etc.) but to understand it’s not enough to define ourselves by one title or one job.
I think, overall I enjoyed the film. While many scenes were a bit painfully cringey to watch, looking back and reflecting on the nuances and themes of the film made me appreciate the film more. And to be honest, I always enjoy a film more if after reflection, I can return a second time to catch the subtle nuances rather than a film I feel I can get 100% while watching and then didn’t really give it much thought after. I will admit while watching the film, and a little after, I came to the conclusion to not recommend it to anyone. But, after thinking about the themes I’d say if you want to dig a little deep, and push a little past some really cringy and embarrassing scenes, the story is a powerful one that teaches you some important life lessons.