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A destitute 14-year-old struggles to keep his life together despite harsh abuse at his mother's hands, harsher abuse at his father's, and a growing separation from his slightly older brother. Petty thefts for food grow into more major takes until he steals a cash box from the diner where he works. Although Joe uses the money to pay off some of his father's debts and to replace his mother's records that his father smashed in a fit of temper, Joe gets no thanks. Written by
John Sacksteder <email@example.com>
Frank Whaley's "Joe The King" has been called by the filmmaker himself "semi-autobiographical." And such a story about so much misery just makes to almost want to see it just to see how this guy got where he is today. It so damn downbeat, you have to ask yourself, "How will all this turn out? This poor boy... Is there a happy ending?"
Like lots of actor-helmed vehicles, this one's loaded with big name walk-ons, "Joe The King" is also chock-full of trite and truths to life--the lead that seems to be born into the hard-luck life of an abusive alcoholic father, the weak whimpering mother who doesn't care if her husband pounds on her kids as long as he doesn't pound on her, the guidance counselor who's all thumbs--aren't they all? A cliché' in movies, but what guidance counselor has ever been worth in damn in life? Was yours?
There is a moment where it's "Careers Day" at an elementary class where it's revealed that Joe's dad is the janitor. He is ridiculed an lashes out (very mildly) at an obnoxious little teacher's pet and the teacher drags Joe and spanks him in front of the class. The knife is further pushed and twisted when she makes it personal by muttering angrily so he can hear, "Just like your father..."
Whaley is clearly dealing with old wounds and knows how to use them so they feel fresh and make you cringe and relate.
"King's" full of downbeat moments and times where life shows it's ugly face. It seems as if God is very skillfully finding ways to torture Joe... and then skewering it further in smaller ways. In a moment of desperation, Joe attempts to do what his parents can't seem to... save the day. Joe is not only starving, he descends into petty theft. Then takes it even further.
He attempts to dodge his father's outbursts and reach out to his brother, who is trying to eke his way into the "in-crowd" and doesn't want Joe's jinx streak to rub off on him, even to the point of at one point sleeping the closet to get away from his brother's sad vibes.
But "Joe The King" is not just one long crying jag. There are lithe moments of humor, sweetness and tenderness. People may differ about the nature of the ending, but in the strangest, saddest way, it offers hope.
The children swear in the tradition of "Stand By Me," the child-abuse is in the tradition of "Radio Flyer" and the atmosphere is reminiscent of many working-class life stories. "King" doesn't feel like it belongs solely in the era. It takes place in the 1970's to be sure, but this feels timeless.
Noah Fleiss gives the best performances he's probably ever given, although how many movies has he really made? And how many of them really have allowed him to shine? This is it.
Val Kilmer is awesome turn as Bob, Joe's deadbeat dad who's one of the biggest problems in Joe's life. He owes money to most of the town. He dodges creditors like bullets, drinks pathetically and lashes out monstrously at his family. Kilmer, known for playing dazzling roles and pretty-boy parts, puts on a great deal of weight and shows nastier edges that he has since "The Doors."
Since Whaley and Kilmer first worked together in that film, Whaley obviously saw how powerfully Kilmer could play a violent sadist, always under narcotic influence. Kilmer has had trouble getting work because he's damn difficult to work with, so the two were clearly doing each other favors. Ethan Hawke plays a friendly, but useless counselor who hopes to get Joe out of his slump. And because it's Joe, he makes things worse.
Karen Young is adequate in a brief supporting part as Joe's mother. And Hispanic wunderkind John Leguizamo, a natural comedic talent, takes a dramatic turn here as a flamboyant busboy in an extended cameo at the rat-hole diner where Joe is working illegally.
Whaley seems to capture the flavor for this kind of working class life and seems to bring out the best in child actors, as well as his more distinguished adult friends and peers. He also sends us back to the day.
I was surprised that this screenplay won the Waldo Salt Screen writing Award. The Open Palm nomination for the film itself, that, I can see. The dialouge is altogether realistic, without being necessarily sharp or too memorable. And the characters are believable without being too fresh.
Writer/director Whaley does an effective job of capturing the atmosphere of this Upstate New York working-class life and bring out the best in child actors and big-name celebrity walk-throughs. Whaley has said this story is inspired by the childhood of himself and his brother, who is featured on the soundtrack and has a bit part.
Good ol' Frank himself also has a directors cameo walk-on as Jerry, one of many who the deadbeat Bob owes money to. He makes a personal house call, and he seems madder than the others Bob owes money to. He seems ready to kill Bob and after it's over, the sins of the father are, once again, visited on the son.
"Joe The King" breaks no new ground. But this is a slice-of-life, and while technology, trends and ideals constantly change, some things remain trite and true whatever era you're living in. Whaley chooses some appropriate music and some nice visuals.
"Joe The King" is kind of an acquired taste, like many coming-of-age stories. It's more of a confessional than anything else. If you've lived a life somewhat like this, or in this part of the world or in this enviorment remotely, you'll understand...
--God Save The King, Dane Youssef
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