A notably realistic portrait of borderline poverty and familial dysfunction, "Joe the King" has such commendable performances and such an amazingly assimilating sense of time, place and circumstance that I hate not being able to recommend it.
The writing-directing debut of under-appreciated actor Frank Whaley -- you probably know him as the guy Samuel L. Jackson shot after quoting Ezekiel 25:17 in "Pulp Fiction" -- his "Joe" script won a screenwriting award at Sundance this year for its story of a foul-mouthed 14-year-old boy (Noah Fleiss) trapped in a sullen, angry, desperate life he'll probably never escape.
His abusive, hard-drinking father (a paunchy, intimidating Val Kilmer) is a constant threat and an embarrassment who owes money all over town. A troublemaker at school (to add to his shame, his dad is the janitor), Joe takes ceaseless, cruel criticism from his teachers and more of the same from his boss (he washes dishes at a local greasy spoon). The poor kid has spent his life learning the hard way to fend for himself.
In the course of the film Joe begins down what seems an inevitable road of petty crime, which soon turns to larceny. He stands up to his dad, only to get beaten down. His sensitive side, which he does his darndest to bury, come out when he spends stolen money on LPs for his mom (Karen Young) after dad smashes all her favorite records in a drunken rage. And all the while you're thinking all this abuse and frustration must be building toward something. But it isn't.
Is that realistic? Probably. But is it engaging? Sadly, no.
Whaley puts us solidly in Joe's corner, and Fleiss no less than a personification of adolescent joy lost in the perception of certain defeat. Kilmer's turn as the hateful father is one of those awesome performances he only manages every four years or so ("Heat" in 1995, "The Doors" in 1991).
But the best thing about "Joe the King" is the exceptional job Whaley does of putting the audience in the kid's shoes. We can taste Joe's frustration. We understand his habitual swearing and his petty crime. We want him to escape but we don't know how he should do it any more than he does.
Yet the movie doesn't go anywhere. When the credits rolled at the end of "Joe the King" I just wasn't sure why I'd been watching this particular boy's trials and tribulations with life on the wrong side of the tracks.
Whaley is a promising director with a remarkable eye for the kind of rich details that engulf an audience. From Joe's dirty fingernails to the family's Tupperware with tin foil for lids, he nails the low-income atmosphere of Joe's household. From the banana seat bicycles to the tube-topped girls at the roller rink, he brings the 1970s to remarkably life ?-- and does it without beating us over the head with music. From the playground tracking shot in the opening scene that freeze-frames on a scowling, 9-year-old Joe with a cigarette dangling from his tough kid lips, we recognize a flair for effective presentation.
He also has a lot of friends in the business willing to do him favors. In addition to Kilmer, this tiny budget film features Ethan Hawke, John Leguizamo and Camryn Manheim in understated supporting roles.
I enthusiastically await Whaley's next project behind the camera, and I feel bad about knocking this one, since he's obviously drawn from his own childhood here.
Some people -- maybe those with worse childhoods than mine -- may connect with "Joe the King," but I didn't.
Run time: 93 mins
In Theaters: Friday 22nd January 1999
Distributed by: Trimark
Contactmusic.com: 2.5 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 65%
Fresh: 17 Rotten: 9
IMDB: 6.7 / 10
Director: Frank Whaley
Starring: Val Kilmer as Bob Henry, Noah Fleiss as Joe Henry, Karen Young as Theresa Henry, Ethan Hawke as Len Coles, Max Ligosh as Mike Henry, Camryn Manheim as Mrs. Basil, Austin Pendleton as Winston, John Leguizamo as Jorge, Louis Zorich as Judge, Amy Wright as Mary, James Costa as Ray, Kate Mara as Allyson, Peter Anthony Tambakis as Young Joe
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