The Basketball Diaries: an independent movie about a heroin addicted teen, that got famous after the high school shooting of Columbine. The image of Leonardo DiCaprio in a black trench coat shooting up his class mates and teacher could have served as an inspiration to Klebold and Harris, the shooters. Since people always like to point to the media this movie was as easily targeted as Child’s Play 3 was after the James Bulger murder. This movie is also notable for starring a pre-Titanic Leonardo DiCaprio, a pre-Boogie Nights Mark Wahlberg and Sweet Valley High twins Cynthia and Brittany Daniel who have a small part as a couple of sluts named Winkie and Blinkie.
Based upon the memoir of poet and musician Jim Carroll with the same name, The Basketball Diaries tells us the story of how a young teen with a promising future in Basketball gets addicted to heroin and eventually has to prostitute himself for a fix. A harrowing story in the vein of Christiane F., but with a more glossy MTV approach to the material.
Jim Carroll is a teenager growing up in New York who lives with his mom. He and his friends go to a Catholic school and in their free time do “silly stuff” like sniffing glue. Not quite the way I spent my years as a teenager. He’s a promising basketball player and lives a relatively care free life. His evenings consist of shooting hoops or hanging out with his friends doing stuff like making fun of Diane, a girl their age who’s a junkie prostituting herself. Jim is also an aspiring poet and is always in possession of a notebook in which he scribbles down his thoughts. Jim also has a best friend named Bobby who’s terminally ill with Leukemia and who he sometimes visits in the hospital.
It’s all fun and games until Jim goes to the house of Winkie and Blinkie for something kinky. These girls introduce Jim to the pleasures of cocaine which gives him an enormous boost in his writing. Not soon after that Jim and his friends are popping all kinds of stuff. Cocaine, prescription pills and eventually heroin, though the “eventually” is pretty abrupt as Jim in a one sentence voiceover just states: I was just gonna sniff a bag but one guy says if you’re gonna sniff you might as well pop it and another guy says if you gonna pop it you might as well mainline.
And it’s all downhill from there: living on the street, violent crimes, prostitution, the works.
Basketball Diaries is grim in subject, but it has a somewhat polished approach to the material. Director Scott Kalvert sometimes presents the movie as a music video with the dream sequences, drug trips and the scene where the guys play basketball in the rain in slow-motion accompanied by a song directly tapping into the story. It’s not as bleak and grim as Christiane F. which is still one of my favorite drug-addiction movies ever, though both are pretty good 90 minute PSA’s.
Leonardo DiCaprio presents us with a performance that carries the entire movie. He gives a terrifying performance when he’s going through withdrawal. You even care for him to a certain degree even though he and his friends are douche bags. His friends give decent performances though Wahlberg is still very much a rookie here in terms of acting. Bruno Kirby is soft-spoken basketball coach Swifty, a guy with a thing for teenage boys, though they never make him a real predator which I found to be a good decision because he would have ended up a cliche character. Lorraine Bracco puts down a decent performance a Jim’s mother but is wasted as she’s only in a handfull of scenes and we never really get to know her.
The movie misses detail and sometimes is pretty abrupt. Jim’s drug habit might be developed pretty slowly, but the heroin addiction is suddenly there. His adult friend Reggie (Ernie Hudson) takes him in and has him go cold turkey, but Jim relapses and is soon out shooting up again. When he has to spent a couple of months of incarceration he apparently easily kicks the habit despite junk being widely available in prison. This is told to us in voiceover rather than shown. Adding a segment of him in prison rather than one shot would’ve created a more complete movie. Jim’s life in Basketball Diaries is like that of a secondhand car: you don’t know its entire story and some parts seem to be missing.