The King of Staten Island (4 stars)

The King of Staten Island

Pete Davidson co-writes and stars in an autobiographical take on arrested development

A story about a man trying to overcome a mentally fragile mindset and get back into the world feels very relevant right now. It's an achingly personal effort, based on the life of its co-writer and star, Pete Davidson, for whom this represents something of a big screen break. With Judd Apatow at the helm, the execution is assured in a film that can be extremely funny, unfolds leisurely and elevates the most ordinary of predicaments to something approaching cinematic gold.

Best known as a stand-up and for his work on Saturday Night Live, Davidson plays 24-year-old Scott Carlin, a 'mad inconsistent' wannabe tattoo artist, whose firefighter father died in a hotel blaze when he was a child and who has struggled with mental health and behavioural issues ever since. With the film opening on something closely resembling a suicide bid, we're immediately aware that things are more serious than Scott simply being stuck. As his worried younger sister (Maude Apatow) heads off to college, leaving Scott and his exasperated nurse mother Margie (Marisa Tomei) home alone, an interloper arrives on the scene in the shape of Bill Burr's Ray, who has designs on Margie, while Scott's own situation is complicated by his feelings for his friend Kelsey (a smart and sassy Bel Powley).

Apatow isn't in any rush to make Scott likeable, but in his fragility and tentative steps to recovery he ultimately becomes a figure of great pathos. Dressed like a child in adult-sized clothes, really ramming home his arrested development, Davidson's distinctive look and shtick make him uniquely cinematic and he turns in an unselfconscious performance which fascinatingly combines Jim Carrey-levels of rubber-faced expressiveness with a gloomy, more deadpan demeanour. His ability to convey Scott's extreme vulnerability is, at times, astonishing and given the painfully autobiographical nature of the piece – Davidson's own firefighter father died during the events of 9/11 – it feels like the actor is truly baring his soul.

Shot in a lovely, languorous way by Robert Elswit, The King of Staten Island boasts some real sucker-punch sincerity, plenty of laughs, some surprising feelgood value, and a cast of characters you'll want to come good. Scratch away its cynicism and you'll find a desperately kind-hearted film that's very forgiving of people's mistakes.

Available to watch on demand from Fri 12 Jun.

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