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SNL’s Pete Davidson delivers a powerful performance in ‘The King of Staten Island’

Pete Davidson in “The King of Staten Island.” (Mary Cybulski/Universal Pictures)
(3 stars)

In “The King of Staten Island,” Pete Davidson plays Scott Carlin, a 24-year-old layabout who still lives with his mom, spends most of his time smoking weed and playing video games with his friends, and nurses a wildly misguided dream to open a place called Ruby Tat-Tuesdays, where customers can watch each other get inked while scarfing down their chicken fingers.

It’s a surpassingly yucky punchline in a movie that glories in the most ungainly aspects of fleshy human life. The tattoos Scott gives his friends for practice are blurry, misshapen blobs; Ray (Bill Burr), a well-meaning firefighter who angrily shows up after Scott tries to give his 9-year-old son a tattoo, has the pasty, unripped physique of a typical outer-borough working stiff. Even Scott himself has the kind of pale, waxy exterior that suggests the world’s worst hangover.

But as “The King of Staten Island” gets underway, the source of Scott’s stagnation becomes clearer, as do the reasons for a personality that is alternately irritating, childishly impulsive and wildly self-centered. And what at first seems ugly and indulgent begins to take on weird beauty. There are sequences when Scott and his buddies hanging out and talking about nothing look like another version of the dude-centric hangout movies that director Judd Apatow has become famous for. But here, Apatow — working from a script he co-wrote with Davidson and Dave Sirus — pumps the brakes on raunchy jokes and obvious sight gags, allowing the humor and pathos of Scott’s story to coexist in unforced, organic harmony.

The story of “The King of Staten Island” occurs over the course of early autumn, when Scott’s sister, Claire (Maude Apatow), moves out to attend college and he is left with his mom, Margie (Marisa Tomei), an overworked nurse who tries repeatedly to connect with her son, only to be insensitively rebuffed. Over the course of this ambling, unhurried narrative, Scott gets a job, fends off the attentions of his would-be girlfriend (Bel Powley laying on the Brooklyn accent with a trowel) and works up an irrational dislike for Ray, who works at a local firehouse. Scott’s own father was a firefighter and lost his life 17 years earlier, while on the job. On its face, “The King of Staten Island” may look like a thwarted, entitled young man getting his act together, but it gains momentum to become a portrait of trauma and unresolved grief.

Davidson, best known for his work on “Saturday Night Live,” delivers a powerful central performance here, made all the more poignant for the movie’s autobiographical elements (his own father, also a firefighter, died on Sept. 11, 2001). But that real-world connection is never exploited or sentimentalized in “The King of Staten Island,” which is both irreverent and unexpectedly tender. There aren’t all that many laugh-out-loud moments in this steadfastly low-key film (one notable exception having to do with the ring tones on Scott’s friends’ phones), but that is utterly to the advantage of a movie that knows better than to get pushy with its characters — and, by extension, the audience — when a gentle nudge will do. Perhaps the highest compliment one can pay Davidson, Apatow and their collaborators is that “The King of Staten Island” is probably the first movie in cinematic history to earn every single one of the audience’s tears at the sight of a disastrous back tattoo. May it be the last.

R. Available on demand. Contains crude language and drug use throughout, sexuality, some violence and bloody images. 136 minutes.