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The Basketball Diaries (1995)

Between his low-rent beginnings (remember Critters 3?) and ascension to pin-up superstardom (Romeo + Juliet, Titanic), Leonardo DiCaprio was keen to prove his acting chops, going up against powerhouse Robert DeNiro in This Boy's Life and here taking an angst-ridden kid-on-the-road-to-hell route calculated to raise memories of James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause, Al Pacino in Panic in Needle Park, Harvey Keitel in Mean Streets and many another young American star in movies about troubled youth.

Manhattan-born Jim Carroll scribbled in his diaries between the ages of thirteen and sixteen, chronicling his descent from high school sports star to heroin-addicted male prostitute, but turned his life around in prison and emerged to find his fragmentary autobiography established as a minor cult best-seller. As a movie project, The Basketball Diaries floated around for a while, attached to the names of whichever teenage actor showed signs of being able to play the part: Matt Dillon, Eric Stoltz and (with horrible irony) River Phoenix. By the time the film finally came together, with Fresh Prince of Bel-Air director Scott Kalvert as director, Carroll had branched out into performance poetry and music: on the soundtrack, he joins Pearl Jam in his self-penned song 'Catholic Boys', and he even pops up - like Irvine Welsh in the superficially similar Trainspotting - in a cameo as a junkie encouraging his younger self to inject rather than snort heroin.

DiCaprio is a little too pretty-pretty to be convincing as the high school jock we meet at the beginning (Mark Wahlberg is more like it as his thuggier best friend), but we suppose his habit of scribbling poetry in an exercise book makes him more sensitive than the rest of his crowd. The performance gets better as young Jim goes to pieces, with DeCaprio doing the shot-up daze and the horrible withdrawal symptoms in true method style. The creepiest scene has the formerly in-shape team fall apart on the basketball court because they've taken the wrong pep pills, though there are plenty of the squalid shooting gallery and toilet stall scenes mandatory in perils-of-smack pictures.

The film gained later notoriety for a (very brief) fantasy sequence in which Jim shows up at school in a black trenchcoat and produces a shotgun to do away with the abusive priest in charge of the class, but mostly shies away from violence in favour of squalour. All the supporting characters, including Lorraine Bracco as Jim's long-suffering Mom, Bruno Kirby as a paedophile sports coach, Juliette Lewis as a local hooker, Michael Imperioli (of Goodfellas and The Sopranos) as a teammate dying of leukaemia and Ernie Hudson as a local man who takes it on himself to rescue the lost boy, are played exactly as if filtered through the writing of a smart but not-overly-bright teenage poet. It has moments of brutal honesty and dreamy teen sentiment, but just misses the edge that made Drugstore Cowboy and Trainspotting, in their different ways, classics of the dope-does-you-in genre.
KIM NEWMAN

First published online somewhere for some movie download thing that never took off...


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