Character Study: Jesse D’Amato

Much like a designer fashion line, my greatest inspiration for S/S 2014 is Dane DeHaan.

His appearance is almost ghostly — his translucent skin, his crystal eyes, his boyish face. But within DeHaan is an acting style so learned and affected that it is impossible not to be transfixed by his talent. One of my favorite examples of this is his role as Jason Cankam in The Place Beyond The Pines, where he is cast as Ryan Gosling’s son. The part is damaged, gritty, dark, but DeHaan plays it with such impassioned innocence that it is hard not to fall in love with him. Buzzfeed also sums it up quite nicely: “You know you’re a babe when you start getting cast as Ryan Gosling’s next-of-kin.”

I first saw DeHaan in Chronicle, the “found-footage” sci-fi drama about a bullied kid who gains telekinetic powers and uses them to tear shit up. I wasn’t crazy about the movie when I first saw it — it’s not really my genre, but I love documentary-esque stuff and could respect it on that level. When I found out DeHaan would be playing one of my favorite characters of all time, Harry Osborn, in The Amazing Spider-Man 2, I was actually very excited, as this Facebook post suggests:

Untitled 2

Contrary to my distinction that DeHaan is a “kid,” he is actually a 28-year-old man. Let that soak in. This small boy that has a face so sweet you want to be cuddling him constantly is 28 YEARS OLD:

And he’s married to a beautiful woman ):

(BTW, if my husband could wear that many patterns on our wedding day, I’ll know I’ve found THE ONE)

I’m getting away from the point. After seeing TASM2, I was obviously very stricken by DeHaan’s performance, and, like I do with all of my obsessions, I began very closely following his every move/film/social media account. It’s been a great experience.

What I really made this post for, and what I’d really like to get into, is DeHaan’s character, Jesse D’Amato, from HBO’s In Treatment. Although I’ve only seen Jesse’s arc, it’s an excellent show, and I highly recommend it. I come home from school every day and re-watch Jesse’s episodes, as I’m so taken by his talent.

The show is centered around Paul Weston, a psychologist, and his array of patients. The 30-minute episodes are entirely shot in Paul’s office as he works with the various tortured, emotionally unstable clients. Like I said, I’ve only seen the Jesse episodes, but the show’s concept is so unique and artfully simple.

Jesse D’Amato is a 17-year-old who is forced into therapy as an alternative from expulsion after selling his Adderall at school. Gay, adopted, and “developmentally challenged,” Jesse’s main struggle is his profound lack of identity, which is highlighted in a variety of ways.

From the first episode, Jesse is introduced as a witty, rough-around-the-edges, sharp-tongued teen. His mind and mouth are always running — from his love of photography, to Facebook, to uttering the sentence, “I think I have a real affinity for the concept of bifurcation,” Jesse is fascinating and high-octane.

Jesse’s sexual life is often discussed in the show, especially in Week 1. Jesse has convinced two older men, Josh and Raif, that he is an NYU freshman, thus positioning him at a legal age of consent to partake in sexual affairs with them. Paul is concerned, as Jesse, in actuality, is still 16 — a minor by New York standards. This sets up for one of Jesse’s more biting quotes, a staple for a blog such as this, in order to best understand his persona:

I said, ‘I was feeling fucked while I was being fucked,’ and I know exactly what I said, because I was trying to make you uncomfortable.

This is textbook Jesse, and only serves to reveal his true nature. While the first five minutes of Jesse’s arc show a lovable, yet slightly neurotic young man, this poignant quote allows us to begin peeling away at Jesse’s inner-psyche. Even Paul points out that Jesse’s language and attitude are a way for him to “obscure” who is. This is really where his story begins.

One of the most pressing events in Jesse’s arc is the surprising and heartbreaking lifeline he’s been thrown from his birth parents. First, a voicemail: his birth mother, Karen, is connecting with him after 17 years of silence. Prior to this, Jesse had always envisioned his biological mother as a “crack whore,” someone who was unfit to be a mother. Recognizing that her area code suggests she’s living in wealthy Westchester, he believes she’s now ready to take care of him.

While Jesse feels confused and upset, he grapples more with how he should tell his adoptive mother, Marisa. Jesse often describes Marisa as insensitive, unfeeling, and resentful of his sexuality, as she comes from a Catholic background.

This comes to an emotional head when Jesse threatens to return Karen’s call in order to secure some money for a summer program at RISD that would otherwise be too expensive for the D’Amato’s to afford. Jesse can only describe his relationship with Marisa as such:

When real parents see their kid, they get, like, this hormone surge, oxycontin — oxytocin, yeah, that’s it. And it makes them, like, feel good. They get, like, addicted to their baby. But…when Marisa looks at me, all she sees are two strangers fucking. I mean, it’s fine, I don’t feel anything when I look at her either. But, you know, what’s hard though is, like, all the lying. Like, pretending that she loves me, pretending that I love her, pretending my whole life hasn’t just been one giant…mistake.

It’s hard to convey the emotion in this scene in black and white. DeHaan stares at the ground, his voice wavering, his jaw clenching. Although Jesse now has two mothers in his life — his birth mom and his adoptive mom — he feels more parentless than ever. Loneliness is so central to Jesse’s character, and this is really where we see him let his guard down.

There are consistencies throughout the show that are so small and delicate, they’re hardly noticeable. Jesse often knocks his fists together when he’s thinking, a quirk that is only verbalized once, in the first episode, though it remains throughout the arc. Characters, storylines, and habits — like the static in Jesse’s mind — all creep up in tiny, unexpected ways. It’s interesting and nuanced.

What isn’t nuanced is DeHaan’s acting skill. Rather, he is ultra-focused. He handles the role with such vivacity and bite. It’s as if he slips into the character and becomes buried within his eccentricities. The sarcastic tone, the disheveled clothes, the shifting eyes, the wide mouth. He is a degenerate, an artist, a sad, lost puppy looking for a home. DeHaan isn’t playing Jesse — he really becomes him. It’s beautiful. DeHaan is a rockstar of acting.

One of my favorite episodes of In Treatment is Week 3 — Jesse brings Marisa, his adoptive mother, to therapy. It provides for the most wickedly funny scene in the entire arc:

I love this scene. We’re supposed to hate Jesse, I think. He is mean; he is sexually explicit; he is offensive. But in this moment, Jesse is at his most lovable. He is hilarious, and in a way, he is representative of what everyone wishes they could be. Outspoken, erratic, impulsive. He’s free-flowing and impassioned. As hurtful as he may be to Marisa, and even to himself by stunting his emotional progress, Jesse is full of life.

Jesse also feels rejected by his adoptive father, Roberto. He laments on how he and Roberto used to be close but had a sudden falling out when he was 12, which Jesse blames on his homosexuality. There is a moment where Jesse admits, “[Roberto] hasn’t really spoken to me in four years.” Again, his eyes are downcast; his face wrinkles as if he’s on the verge of tears. Jesse lacks a real maternal presence in his life, and much in the same way, he feels slighted of a father, or a man to give him guidance. He is a photographer, while Roberto is an electrician — the contrast of art and utility, and the greater divide of gay and straight, drives a wedge between the father and son, leaving Jesse heartbroken.

Jesse’s birth father, Kevin, also contacts Jesse during this time. We find out that his birth parents have since married, and that they’re interested in meeting him. While Jesse was previously intrigued and a little excited about the prospect of meeting his birth parents, Roberto discovers they’ve been contacting him and shuts that shit down. This has a huge effect on Jesse, who is obviously young with malleable opinions. Roberto’s anger echoes in Jesse’s words: “I’m a minor, for Christ’s sake. What they’re doing is illegal. I mean, they gave me up. They didn’t want me.” When asked how Roberto’s reaction to this contact made Jesse feel, he admits: “It felt fucking awesome, because he gave a fucking shit.”

In Week 4, the sound of rain trickles in the background of the entire episode. It’s hardly noticeable, but it almost mimics the static inside Jesse’s head. I love when this kind of shit is injected into film or television — stuff that really makes you think, and feel, and transports you into this different universe. While we’re supposed to view Jesse through Paul’s eyes, we are also given the alternative perspective, another element to In Treatment that makes it so goddamn awesome.

The relationship between Paul and Jesse also becomes more evident by Week 4. While previously, it was acutely doctor-patient, we see newfound emotions between the two. Paul asks Jesse if he thinks he was hard to raise, and Jesse comments, “I have ADD and I’m a slut. Would you have wanted a kid like me?” Without missing a beat, Paul responds: “Yes.”

Jesse pens a response to Kevin’s letter, saying (quite eloquently, thanks to Adderall) that he does not wish to be in contact with his birth parents, as it has caused his adoptive parents “significant distress.” It should be said that Jesse signs the letter with his full name: “Jesse Saul D’Amato.” I strongly believe this character is loosely-based on Jesse Pinkman, what with the sale of drugs, the shaky teen years, and the beautiful blue eyes, but it’s up for interpretation. But come on — Jesse Saul? That’s a high-quality Breaking Bad reference, am I right?

Anyway, Jesse ends up leaving the letter with Paul, giving him more time to decide whether he should cut off contact from his birth parents or agree to see them. This is hopeful — Jesse is becoming more clear-headed, despite the fact that this pressure has made the static in his mind “fucking loud, man.”

Week 5 is another one of my favorites, simply because it is probably the most emotionally cathartic one of the bunch. Jesse storms in Tuesday night, rather than Wednesday afternoon — he’s crying, he’s clearly in distress, and he wants to have an emergency session. Paul complies, despite the fact the he is sharing a moment with his son, and this seems to further trigger Jesse’s anxiety.

Jesse hastily decided to meet his birth parents, and upon arriving early at their home, discovered that they have other children — most notably, one of their sons is wheelchair-bound. Embarrassed, scared, and hurt, Jesse gets high and Kevin and Karen kick him out of their home, which we later learn is due to Jesse striking a deal with them: he’ll donate some bone marrow or a kidney for the child in a wheelchair, who he assumes is “sickly,” in exchange for money to fund the RISD summer program he is obsessed with attending.

It’s easy to say that Jesse has met his match in Paul — the therapist is often, in the most logical way possible, dressing Jesse down and justifying the actions of others in order to give Jesse a more informed perspective. However, Paul finds many times that he must concede with Jesse in order to best get his point across. When Jesse has an emotionally-charged outburst over the fact that Karen and Kevin hid their other children from him, Paul attempts to share their side: perhaps they were just trying to make this meeting about Jesse. But Jesse insists: why would they wash the children’s chalk drawings off of the driveway? And Paul has to agree — why would anyone go so far as to wash away sidewalk chalk in order to hide their children?

But when Paul smacks Jesse with psychological analysis that is so unbearably honest, it is absolutely awesome. It happens a few times each episode, but the best encounter occurs when Paul calls Jesse out on his tendency to “test” those around him, commenting:

I think you deliberately sabotaged that meeting. I can’t help but feel that it’s another event in the pattern of your behavior, that you test everybody around you and then you push them away, like you did with Marisa and Roberto and Nate. Now, it’s your birth parents. You hurt the people who care about you so that they will turn away from you, and then you can prove to yourself that you’re fundamentally unlovable. Even coming over here now, it’s late, it’s not your session time. Were you testing me to see how much I care, what I’m willing to sacrifice?

Jesse screams that Paul has ruined his life; he accuses Paul of taking the letter in which he planned to cut ties from his birth parents, the letter which he, in actuality, asked Paul to keep. This demonstrates Jesse’s lack, or fear, of responsibility, another layer of his damaged persona. He sits on the front steps of Paul’s high-rise, crying his eyes out. This is the first time we see Jesse truly, physically emotional. His breathing evens out, and he says, painfully, “They kept a crippled kid.” He bursts into sobs. “God, what is wrong with me? There must be something,” He cries. I now fully understand just how much this show is ruining my life.

It’s around this time that I’m dying to get to the next episode — to see what’s happening with Jesse and all of the people in his life. A new feeling washes over me. I realize that I am treating Jesse’s private, emotionally-charged therapy sessions as some kind of sick, twisted gossip that I can’t help but indulge in. This is the one catch of In Treatment: I am so connected and in love with the characters, that I can’t help but feel as if I am intruding on their lives. I care about them so much that I worry I’m not giving them enough space. This is a television show. I need to get a grip.

Going back to Jesse’s lack of identity, he really touches upon it in Week 6 in the most beautiful way:

I used to spend hours when I was a kid just looking in the mirror, trying to figure out if I was handsome or not. It just depended on the day. If someone told me I was handsome, then I was handsome, and if someone told me I was ugly, then I believed that. I hardly ever look in the mirror anymore though, not if I can help it. It’s just too stressful.

Jesse doesn’t recognize anyone in his face — he obviously doesn’t look like his adoptive parents, and his birth parents are so foreign and disappointing to him that they also evade him physically. This leaves Jesse feeling as if he is purposeless, or as if he is a sophisticated prop in the D’Amato family: the beautiful, blue-eyed son. He naturally feels the need to rebel. But within Jesse is such untouched angst and loneliness that he desperately seeks a position that is permanent — to be someone’s real son. He hypothesizes that there must be something wrong with him, and when Paul assures him there isn’t, he croaks, “Well, then, why don’t they want me? I’m his son. He kicked me out of his house.” It’s another one of those emotional Jesse moments that is like a sucker punch to the sad bone. He is almost mourning the nonexistent relationship between himself and his birth parents. It is, in a word, tragic.

Jesse then utters his best quote:

I don’t want to be anywhere. I don’t want to talk to anyone. I just want to disappear.

I find this to be a very honest thing to say. Contrary to popular belief, I think it’s a challenge to run away from the things that scare us or disappoint us. There is an overwhelming human need to work things out, to rise to expectations, to clean up. Jesse recognizes that he is in therapy, that he is attempting to improve his condition. However, escape is the ideal for Jesse — as the show impresses upon us, he is seeking his place in his personal world. When he continues to fail at this, he concludes that it would be better to not be there at all. At the end of the day, he’s only seventeen. There’s nowhere for him to run away to. He is forced to fix up his life, and this is agonizing for him.

A beacon of hope is presented, though, as Jesse announces that he is a finalist for the RISD summer program and is going to take a train out after his therapy session in order to go through a final interview. But Jesse still cannot afford the program, thus, the interview is really obsolete. Paul counters this:

I know running away seems like a good idea now, but I promise you, you will take this feeling with you wherever you go. It will not leave you until you deal with it. And it won’t leave you even then, but it will lessen. And believe it or not, eventually you’ll be able to draw a strength from this experience that you never imagined possible.

Week 6 is especially sad because it unfolds on Jesse’s birthday. He comments on how he’ll probably go ride the elevator at the Marriott in Times Square, but he really has no one to go with. He then invites Paul to get ice cream with him, to which Paul responds, “Why don’t you ask Roberto?” Jesse knows this is not an option. Worried about Jesse’s mental condition and concerned for his physical safety, Paul asks for Jesse’s permission in calling his parents to pick him up, but Jesse begs: “Please, don’t do that. I’ll be all right.” He sits in the window and stares at his face reflecting in the glass. It is so painful — we all want to pick Jesse up from Paul’s office and take him for ice cream, celebrate his birthday, help him realize he is loved, and that he is smart.

In the final episode, Week 7, Jesse brings Roberto, his adoptive father, to therapy. Oh my God, he is awful. After his last session, Jesse hopped the train to RISD but didn’t have enough money for a ticket, a night that ends with him in the precinct. Jesse calls Roberto to bail him out, and his father complies, driving eight hours from Buffalo to Providence.

This is obviously bad for Jesse. When Roberto throws these rare grand gestures of love at Jesse, he eats them up — thus severely damaging his therapy progress, as Paul is attempting to guide Jesse toward a life in which he is less reliant on the actions of others for self-gratification.

Roberto puts the idea in Jesse’s head that therapy is a waste of time — he is messed up because Marisa wasn’t a nurturing mother with him as a baby, and because she is nervous around Jesse, Jesse is nervous all the time. But you can see it on Jesse’s face — the furrowed brow, the way his lips curl downward. He likes therapy, and he likes Paul. Roberto is really forcing Jesse out of this safe haven, and although Jesse’s face reads one way, his pride and need to be loved gets the better of him, per usual.

Jesse feels that there has never been anything wrong with him — Marisa is so dysfunctional that his behavior is simply a reflection of her bad parenting. Paul agrees that understanding our parents as fallible can be relieving, but it can also confuse us, and make us feel even more insecure. Jesse insists that he isn’t confused, that everything is clear to him, and that he feels much better. But Paul asks: Is this clarity coming from within Jesse, or within his father?

Paul assures Jesse that he doesn’t have to choose between his therapist and his father — it’s entirely possible to balance both, as they both serve different purposes in Jesse’s development. But Jesse is already so detached and brainwashed by Roberto that he can’t rationally conclude that what Paul is saying is right.

Jesse shares that Roberto wants him to become an electrician, a symbol to Jesse that he finally belongs and has a place in his family, and that he has a real connection with his father. Paul’s worries about Jesse leaving therapy are verbalized in a very acute way. He’s concerned that the progress they’ve made regarding Jesse’s photography, his sexuality, his birth parents, will get “buried.” Paul believes that the work he’s done with Jesse is only scraping the surface of the depths they could potentially reach. Jesse asks why this is all so important to Paul, and he responds in such a heartbreaking way:

Because you are important to me.

While this is the solace Jesse has been seeking for the seven weeks we’ve known him, he has already received it in artificial packaging via Roberto. Although Paul is genuine, Jesse’s cup has already been filled. He explodes, frustrated by his contrasting emotions: he believes he is ready to quit therapy, yet Paul provides a compelling argument as to why Jesse isn’t healed yet. He screams, “You’re not my fucking father,” at Paul, but in reality, no one is really Jesse’s father. He’s adopted, and his birth father rejected him. Paul is the closest thing he has to a paternal figure. The idea that he will be removed from Jesse’s life is extremely painful.

Paul holds out the letter from Jesse’s birth father, along with Jesse’s unsent response. This leaves Jesse’s future wide open — he now has the power to decide whether he will communicate with his birth parents or leave them behind. He storms out of the office without taking the letters.

Infrequently, a piano interlude will play during Jesse’s sessions. It is the most mind-numbingly sad orchestration that has ever existed. It plays as Paul watches Jesse drive away. It is impossible not to cry, even just out of frustration — Jesse needs to be in therapy. His life is so uncertain, even after all we’ve experienced with him. To watch him leave is almost to watch him throw his life away. And then he’s gone.

At the end of the day, In Treatment provides for a moving emotional experience, in which we feel so deeply for Jesse D’Amato that his absence is unbearable. DeHaan’s performance is so captivating that it is a work of art, intended to be watched again and again, if only to see him with his plethora of tones and facial expressions and odd physical quirks.

Looking like he either: A) Hasn’t slept for 20 years, B) Has the flu, or C) Is severely addicted to crack, DeHaan is enchanting. Writing this has been one of my greatest joys, as this character is complex and beautiful and lovely to analyze.

You can watch In Treatment on HBOGo, or on YouTube.

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