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As Jim Carroll, the teenage prep-school junkie hero of The Basketball Diaries, Leonardo DiCaprio is so brilliant he's scary.

He's only 20, but he has the expressiveness and assurance of someone who's been starring in films for decades. He gives you everything he has to give, yet at the same time, he inexplicably holds something back; he's simultaneously transparent and inscrutable, boyish and ancient.

When, in the middle of a pill-induced adrenaline jag, he raises his long arms and peers out at a confusing, hostile New York City, he's like the leader of the aliens from Close Encounters. His shiny eyes seem to hold all the mysteries of the cosmos.

Factor DiCaprio out of The Basketball Diaries and you're left with a pretty good movie on a very familiar subject. The source material, poet and musician Jim Carroll's autobiography, was published in bits and pieces in the late 1960s by The Paris Review, then was issued as a novella-length book in the '70s and gained cult fame. Like Drugstore Cowboy and Rush, it views the universe of small-time junkies, hustlers, and thieves through the prism of white, middle-class eyes.

It's a hipsterish fever dream in which a sweet, handsome, promising kid sinks into the depths of addiction and despair, then returns to the respectable world and gains worldwide fame by writing about what happened to him.

Carroll is the Prince Hal of the Lower East Side, slumming with the benefit of a sociological safety net. Which may explain why so many young, rich, white actors, from Matt Dillon and Anthony Michael Hall through Eric Stoltz and (ironically) River Phoenix, wanted to star in a movie version. In a sense, Carroll's brief but nearly fatal experimentation with drugs was a form of role-playing--a Method performance that turned into the real thing.

The film is another one of those dream projects that passed through so many sets of hands that by the time it finally reached the screen, it became a period piece. Screenwriter Bryan Goluboff and director Scott Kalvert have moved the tale into the present day without changing many details. This is a problem, because the story and characters (and the retro-gritty photography and production design, as well as several of the soundtrack selections) are so obviously rooted in another era that when Carroll and his pals are gallivanting about the streets of Manhattan, you halfway expect them to round a corner and bump into Joe Buck and Ratso Rizzo.

The film unfolds in straightforward, linear fashion. Carroll and his three fellow starting squad members, gnomelike kleptomaniac Pedro (James Madio), hot-tempered Mickey (Mark Wahlberg, who's surprisingly edgy and charismatic), and stolid Neutron (Patrick McGaw), enjoy the perks of high-school basketball stardom. They walk down the school halls like jaunty princes and wander the streets late at night, scamming on girls, getting drunk, smoking cigarettes, committing petty crimes, and otherwise living the letter of their official team motto: "Who's better than we are? Nobody!"

Then the pill-taking starts, and the four friends begin to shut themselves off from the world around them. Next comes an Eve-and-the-Apple scene: Neutron hooking Carroll up with hot-to-trot twin sisters who also happen to be major cokeheads. It's just a short hop to experimentation with heroin.

Before long, the teammates are committing felonies to get money for smack, and even selling drugs. The group splinters, various authority figures crack down, and the squad becomes a pathetic bunch of thieving nomads. Spiraling inexorably downward, Jim finds that he's not living his life in the name of fun anymore; he's living only to find the next high. It's obvious that barring a supreme act of self-discipline, this once-blessed basketball hero is going to end up a corpse in the gutter.

Again, this is nothing you haven't seen before. But like writer-director Frank Darabont, who brilliantly adapted The Shawshank Redemption for the movies last year, Kalvert and Goluboff overcome predictability by developing the film's characters and atmosphere instead. The result is a turbocharged ode to the lithe bodies and swaggering souls of boys who believe they're invincible--a glorious love song of youthful self-destructiveness. When the squad gets high and plays basketball during a thunder shower, there's an indelible image of Jim hanging from a rim, shaking his wet, stringy hair back and forth like a dog and bellowing into the wind. A similar scene, in which the four friends hurl themselves off a cliff into the sewage-soaked East River as a wild-assed test of courage, is staged and edited as a furious ballet of superhuman wills, as if Nazi sports documentarian Leni Riefenstahl had captured the exploits of Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer on film.

Later, our hero endures a savage beating at the hands of a boy who claims Jim sold his sister bad drugs. Jim finds himself lying semiconscious on his back in the snow; the camera cranes slowly down from the ether like a guardian angel, eventually settling on his curiously peaceful visage. Jim's expression at this instant is exactly right. It says, Hey, this snow sure is cold, and if I don't do something soon, I'm going to freeze to death--but those falling flakes look so pretty I don't feel like moving just yet. Gus Van Sant's Drugstore Cowboy captured the same laid-back, druggy sense of humor--a humor that combines sweetness and gloom.

And DiCaprio is perfectly in tune with it. He has the wounded, vulnerable quality and ambisexual dreaminess of James Dean, who was also willing to try bizarre, seemingly unworkable stunts just to see how they'd turn out, like the drunken banquet scene in Giant in which his much-anticipated speech comes out as an unintelligible slur, and the scene by the empty pool in Rebel Without a Cause when he suddenly lapses into a hilariously accurate impression of his father, played by Jim Backus.

It's this willingness to delve into the playful, the perverse, and the unexpected that makes some of the current, younger actors such as Forest Whitaker, Sean Penn, and Nicolas Cage so much fun to watch. And although DiCaprio probably enjoys his work as much as his elders, he never lets that enjoyment become so evident that it shows on his face and breaks the spell he's created. He gets completely inside whoever he's playing without losing emotional contact with the audience.

A case in point is the scene in which Carroll bangs on his mother's door, whining and crying and coughing, begging money for a fix. It's so pathetic and harrowing that it's difficult to watch; it's also a tour de force of Method detail that requires phenomenal concentration to pull off. At one point, in the middle of a sentence, he pauses to hack up phlegm and spit in the hallway before continuing his spiel. It's an amazingly self-conscious trick, yet it's executed so perfectly that you don't question it for a second. And it's emblematic of DiCaprio's absolute conviction, which makes you believe everything he does and says, no matter how subtle or showy, naturalistic or calculated his performance becomes. This young man doesn't act: he just is.

The Basketball Diaries. New Line. Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Wahlberg, Patrick McGaw, James Madio. Script by Bryan Goluboff, from Jim Carroll's novel. Directed by Scott Kalvert. Now showing.

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