Staten Island is having its moment right now. For some reason, the forgotten borough of New York City has stepped into the spotlight, with movies like Big Fan and TV shows like The Jersey Shore (with three out of eight cast members being from the Island) and True Life: I’m a Staten Island Girl finally giving it some attention.
With the film Staten Island, director James DeMonaco promises to push past all of the borough’s stereotypes—which, let’s face it, are mostly negative—for a more honest look at what it means to be from the Island. He does so, as he mentions in a thoughtful commentary with stars Ethan Hawke and Vincent D’Onofrio, because he grew up on Staten Island, and always felt a sense of being mocked when he told that fact to outsiders.
But even if you didn’t know DeMonaco’s background, the movie actually states its intentions in a clever, informative news reel about Staten Island that opens the film. Staten Island has “grown into a land of ethnic and financial diversity, where doctors, stockbrokers, and lawyers reside right next to cops, firemen, and sanitation workers,” a voiceover states. “This unique, misunderstood land should not be treated as the forgotten stepchild of Manhattan any longer.”
On one hand, DeMonaco does a great job of infusing his characters with the same inferiority complex—what he calls a “grand sense of insignificance”—that plagues Staten Island as a whole. His three main characters, whom the story follows in separate but overlapping, fractured-chronology segments, all yearn for something greater. Small-time gangster Parmie (Vincent D’Onofrio) is in the crime business for the immortal fame and notoriety, and as such he has side-projects to cement his legacy, such as trying to break the world record for holding his breath underwater.
Sully (Ethan Hawke), a septic-tank cleaner, decides he wants better for his unborn child and decides to pull a heist for the money to get his son gene-enhancement therapy. Finally, Jasper (Seymour Cassel), a deaf-mute deli owner, exists as a grim cautionary tale for what happens when dreams of moving on to greater things are realized, and prove ultimately to be a disappointment.
Unfortunately, though DeMonaco’s ideas work hard to avoid being easy clichés, he still doesn’t create a fully realized universe of three-dimensional characters. The film’s opening voiceover promises to show us a world where lawyers co-mingle with sanitation workers, and instead we get three stories about low-life crooks, mobsters, and criminals. And, though DeMonaco is from Staten Island, the film doesn’t feel at all personal. His characters are so full of conscious quirk that it’s hard to believe them as real residents of Staten Island.
Which is not to say that they’re not entertaining. Since the movie works so hard to avoid cliché, it’s certainly more interesting than your typical small-time gangster tale, and the narrative follows an unpredictable arc. DeMonaco also does a good job of switching between movie genres and the focus on his characters shift, transitioning from melodrama to deadpan absurdity to emotional appeals, and it even has bits of sci-fi thrown in.
And just as the characters are full of whimsy, the direction is, too: DeMonaco gives us some striking images, such as Jasper’s bright-red socks, which are used to “announce his presence” because he’s mute and can’t announce it any other way. Even the fractured time chronology, which is used in many movies to no discernable effect, works here as a way to provide just the right details at just the right times.
In the commentary track—which, along with a super-short interview with Vincent D’Onofrio and a couple deleted scenes, makes up all of the special features included on the DVD—Hawke explains that he believed the characters were all united by the idea that the “regularness of life is not good enough.” Like its characters, Staten Island seems to be striving to reach something greater, but never quite reaches it.