The film is based on late poet/rocker Jim Carroll’s book The Basketball Diaries, which itself is based on his own life as a teen heroin addict. In a curious choice, rather than setting the story in the 1960s, when Carroll was growing up and getting deep into trouble, The Basketball Diaries instead takes place in an undefined “present” (the film is from 1995) which is hinted at with the soundtrack featuring the likes of PJ Harvey, Soundgarden, and even Jim Carroll himself (the punk classic “People Who Died”).
Pre-Titanic Leonardo DiCaprio plays Jim Carroll, a Manhattan teen who lives with his mom in a working-class hood (do these even exist in Manhattan anymore?) but otherwise lives a relatively golden life at a Catholic High School where he and his basketball-playing buddies rule. Sure they are one step from being hooligans, but their skills are pretty much unmatched on the court, so these bad boys pretty much get away with anything. That is until their casual smoking turns to harder stuff, then eventually to heroin.
It is one of those fuzzy stories where you are not really sure what causes these kids to fall into a downward spiral of hard drugs. Jim’s best friend (Michael Imperlioli) dies of cancer, and Jim’s mom is struggling to make ends meet. Otherwise, his life doesn’t seem that hard. Jim hangs out with his obnoxious pals Mikey (Mark Wahlberg), Pedro (James Madio), and Neutron (Patrick McGaw), falling into petty crime and then edgier stuff like stealing cars in order to pay for their habit. You kind of get the sense that they are doing all of this initially out of boredom. But when pretty much the whole basketball team is high and non-functioning at an important game, the boys get kicked out of school (except for Neutron, who has already started to distance himself from the hardcore abusers).
The Basketball Diaries is an anti-drug drug movie. The story is often narrated by Carroll’s own diaries (which sometimes works, and sometimes doesn’t), and is one of those films that tries to offer a visual equivalent of how it feels to get high (running through fields of flowers, shooting up your classmates with a sawed-off shotgun, etc.). In the meantime, you get to see Leo literally frothing at the mouth in the gutter after his mom has kicked her druggie kid out of the house. Good times.
I’m sure that Carroll’s Diaries are readable and interesting. But knowing that he grew up during the turbulent and fast-changing 1960s, it is hard to see the point of setting the film in modern times where, well, such a story comes across as less unique. The punk edge is gone, and the kids just look like irresponsible brats. The saving graces for the film are a handful of performances that stand out. Lorraine Bracco has the small role of Jim’s mom, and to see her locking the door on her pleading, twitching addict kid is heartbreaking. Mark Wahlberg, in one of his first acting roles, gives a peek at his dramatic potential. And Leo is unsurprisingly pretty darn good. There is one scene in particular that haunts me, where Leo’s Jim, sweating and shaking from withdrawal and desperation, is pleading through the locked front door to his mom for money. “I’ll be a good boy!” he wails over and over, sobbing and screaming while his mom winces and cries on the other side of the door, not daring to unlock it. It is moments like this, showing the worst case scenario of losing a loved one to drugs where the movie shines. Otherwise The Basketball Diaries is a kind of muddled mishmash of brats on parade.
The Blu-Ray release of The Basketball Diaries doesn’t go out of its way to offer anything new. There are a handful of extras featuring interviews with the cast that are mainly only interesting because they are from the year of filming. The boys all refer to Mark Wahlberg as “Marky” and talk about how cool the others are. Most interesting is when one of the filmmakers proclaims that Leonardo DiCaprio will have a great career by the time he’s 40 (a bit of an underestimate). There is also a short film of the real Jim Carroll doing a reading in 1981, which is edgy and interesting, and seems basically unrelated to the movie as a whole… making you realize that the movie could have, and should have been much better than it was, considering the source.