The King of Second Lockdown

At the start of the UK’s first lockdown, I made a thorough list of all the films I wanted to watch. There were new releases and ones I’d been meaning to watch for ages, but had ‘never had the time’. I, along with the rest of the non-essential workers of the world, finally had the time. I found new favourites and relied on sturdy old ones. I felt inspired; eager to experience art and improve my film repertoire.
This second lockdown looks a little different. There’s been no list. I haven’t watched any films. The only thing I’ve been able to watch is my long-time love Grey’s Anatomy and, a new addition to mindless watching, The Crown (do we all agree it’s incredibly boring but still entirely watchable?) That was, until yesterday, when I finally decided to watch a film. I was home alone, with my dog and my depression was keeping me company. I decided to treat myself and rented The King of Staten Island, the film released earlier this year, from Judd Apatow & Pete Davidson.
The film, a semi-autobiographical story of Davidson’s life, follows Scott (named after Davidson’s real father) trying to get his life together in the film’s eponymous district. At 24 he, like Davidson, still lives with his mum and watches his younger sister move away to college. On the surface, he’s a high-school dropout, weed smoking, aspiring-tattoo artist edition of a fuck-boy. Yet, quickly, we’re told about the firefighter father Scott (Davidson) lost at a young age and the mental illnesses he’s lived with since. Scott is complex and often confusing; hating himself, making jokes about being “Me-too’d”, using friends, protecting friends, tattooing children and trying to comfort his mum. Despite his questionable qualities, he’s distinctly likeable, just as Davidson himself is. The film brings us through Scott’s journey to shitty-boy-man to not-so-shitty-young-man. He acts like a fool in a number of ways and is ultimately thrown out of his mums house. He clutches for help, clinging on to imprisoned friends and the girl he’s pissed off, but ultimately has nowhere to go but his dad’s old firehouse (where his mum’s new boyfriend incidentally now works). He starts to learn and begins to grow up — interestingly, without the immediate help of a stable young woman/MPDG to fix his shitty behaviour, as is commonplace in this sort of film. His fathers friends teach him how to be a person and how to pay attention to the world (albeit, with questionable toxic masculinity exhibited throughout such scenes, e.g. calling a man showing his emotions a “pussy”). We end with Davidson reunited with his love Kelsey (Bel Powley), waiting for her to finish an exam in the city. As he looks onto the skyline (representing his father and/or his journey with SNL?) Kid Cudi’s ‘Pursuit of Happiness (Nightmare)’ plays. A song that Davidson said helped him survive when he was suicidal — something we have in common.
It must be said that I have a soft spot for Davidson and so watched this film on a rose-tinted screen. He, along with his character in the film, has borderline-personality disorder, ADD and Crohn’s disease. He is disabled in multiple ways, and often struggles with life because of them. Pete/Scott is honest and up-front about his struggles with mental illness — talking about his suicidality, his cutting and general crazy-ness. And the best part: he makes jokes about it. Jokes that make people who haven’t experienced such feelings uncomfortable, but make those who have lived in those realities feel seen (and crack up at the same time). As he said on SNL after a joke about his suicide threat: ‘I shouldn’t joke about it, (but it is funny though)’. As someone diagnosed with a sort of borderline-borderline (that’s not what it’s called, I technically have c-PTSD with a tendency for emotional instability yada-yada-yada), I feel comfort in the way Davidson has publicly talked about his BPD, and the way he’s made a film featuring the crazy-ness and scariness we often live with. I feel even more comfort in the way he’s also very clearly a person alongside his diagnosis — a person who makes jokes, who has a sister and a mum he loves, who loves streetwear and weed. Pete Davidson melts the mould of what society thinks a person with BPD looks like. Stereotypically, someone with BPD is a crazy, obsessive, house-burning woman (à la Girl, Interrupted and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend; the latter of which is also a great and subversive take on BPD). Davidson, a cis straight-man who is funny, cool and successful, shows that BPD is a diagnosis anyone can have. He’s shone a light on a diagnosis the general public would rather keep in the dark. In the past week, Instagram has banned the hashtag ‘#BPD’, arguing that it promoted self-harm. This, although perhaps rooted in so-called good intentions, does nothing but push those who live with the symptoms into further isolation and danger. BPD’s traits are often scary, but that doesn’t mean those who live with it should be shamed and made to hide. Davidson is doing the exact opposite, being himself in all his crazy ways every Saturday night. He doesn’t glorify it, but speaks truth on it to show that we exist, and we’re still surviving.
As a reintroduction to film (or, a reintroduction to anything not-Grey’s), The King of Staten Island was perfect. It’s heartbreaking, moving, funny and awkward, telling the dark lighthearted tale I desperately needed. Davidson and I, in many ways, are worlds apart. But, along with anyone watching it who’s similarly struggled with mental illness, I felt an immovable recognition. A recognition that was summarised in the film’s final shot, when Cudi’s song played, and I realised I still knew all the words.

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Catriona Morton

Catriona Morton

Writing on trauma, disability, culture & feminism. I like books. My own book on rape culture will be out with Trapeze Spring 2021.