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‘Basketball Diaries’

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
April 21, 1995


Steve Kalvert
Leonardo DiCaprio;
Mark Wahlberg;
Patrick McGaw;
James Madio;
Lorraine Bracco;
Michael Imperioli;
Juliette Lewis
language, adult situations and drug use

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Though basketball is its central conceit, "Basketball Diaries" is not a sports film—at least not in the conventional sense. Based on jock-poet-rock star Jim Carroll's celebrated account of his brutal descent into heroin abuse as a teenager in Manhattan, the film has no big-game finale drawing the story forward. It's a tough, intense, wrenching picture about drugs and growing up and surviving, driven by a fierce, skinless performance by its star, Leonardo DiCaprio.

A stringy, frail-looking kid with narrow shoulders and a baby face, Jim (DiCaprio) is a basketball star at a Catholic high school. And at the beginning of the film, he and his pals Mickey (Mark Wahlberg, a k a Marky Mark), Neutron (Patrick McGaw) and Pedro (James Madio)—who make up the backbone of their team—are in their golden prime. On the court, their movements complement one another with such effortless grace that it almost seems choreographed. And their current winning streak seems to extend off the court as well, where they drink and hang out and do pretty much as they please.

For Carroll, basketball is a metaphor for youth and power and libidinous, physical release. It's about being at the beginning of things, with unbroken horizons in every direction. On the court, Jim and his friends feel immortal, untouchable. In one sequence, director Steve Kalvert shows the friends shooting baskets in the rain, and with the chalk-white of their bodies shining out against the darkness of the playground, they seem weightless and innocent, untouched by the world.

When Jim isn't shooting hoops, he can usually be found on the roof of the building where he lives with his mother (Lorraine Bracco), indulging himself in a more solitary form of physical catharsis. The movie follows Carroll's lead in drawing an equation between sex and sport and dope. It's the kick that fascinates the boys—Jim especially—drawing them from one high to another, and as the movie progresses, further away from realizing their early potential.

It's clear that writing was a kick for Carroll too. In addition to being his gang's leader, he is also its unofficial historian. Everything that happens—from the loss of his best friend, Bobby (Michael Imperioli), to leukemia, to his first experiments with drugs soon afterward—goes into the folded-over notebook he keeps jammed into his back pocket.

From the start, drugs and writing seemed to go hand-in-hand for Carroll. When the character first talks about drugs, he does so with such studied nonchalance that you think it's a joke. But the incident marks a turning point. In one of the movie's most distressing scenes, Jim is shown in flashback at a party taking cocaine for the first time. The twist here is that instead of sending Jim into a sexual frenzy, the coke loosens up the writer in him, and for hours afterward he snorts and scribbles, frantically trying to record the unleashed ravings of his mind.

Because writing is such an interior activity, movies about writers are notoriously hard to pull off, but Kalvert has done a beautiful job of creating a visual equivalent for Carroll's metaphors. Ultimately, "Basketball Diaries" is not a movie about sports or dope or youth; it's about the birth of a writer. And yet we can see that writer's struggles to emerge in everything he does—in the panicked writhing of withdrawal and the subtle mastery of a no-look pass.

At times, the suffering that DiCaprio depicts seems almost too corrosive to be looked straight in the eye. Still, though his body appears too fragile to withstand the descent, this amazingly uninhibited actor doesn't back off an inch. DiCaprio goes as far into the hell of drug abuse as any actor ever has—and comes out a star.

Basketball Diaries is rated R for language, adult situations and drug use.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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