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Featured at the 1999 Toronto Film Festival, the directorial debut from the
talented actor Frank Whaley "Joe The King" was introduced by Frank's
long-time friend Ethan Hawke and the film's main actor Noah Fleiss. Ethan
explained that Frank and he had been the best of friends since their work on
"A Midnight Clear" together. Frank couldn't present the film because he was
only just getting into Toronto at the airport but happily agreed to a Q&A
The film portrays with stunning clarity a bleak period in the life of Joe, a fourteen year old boy from a lower class neighbourhood whose father is an alcoholic and works as a janitor in Joe's school. Joe works in a restaurant after school and in all aspects of his life he's surrounded by people who look down on him, talk down to him and sometimes beat on him. It's very difficult to not feel sorry for someone like Joe, he'll likely break your heart. Many of us may have bad childhoods or perhaps recall them as such, but for most, this film will give you reason to feel lucky and fortunate whatever your situation was.
There's not so much a story as there is a stringing together of vignettes of a hellish childhood that brings an authentic feel to each and every aspect of the film. While the film does move along quite slowly, each performance given is a strong building block to assemble what ultimately seems to be an autobiographical account. The world that Joe lives in is so fully constructed and detailed that it's easy to forget you're watching a film and not a documentary.
What was revealed in the Q&A afterwards, was that Whaley wrote this film as a conglomerate of his brother and his own experiences growing up. A statement he almost reluctantly offers, explaining that the original title of the film was named for the street where he grew up. Out of respect for his mother they chose "Joe The King" which turns out to be a fairly arbitrary title. "I hope you're not telling people it's autobiographical," as he mimics his mother's concerned sentiment, at which point he shares that he hopes she never sees the film as it may prove too painful for her.
While the film is not based on a true story per se, that is not what is most relevant. What Joe goes through on a daily basis is what this story is about, what is likely to stir you, and not the pivotal event in the later part of the film. And as a young Joe looks into the camera at the end of the film, holding there for a moment. The question that haunts the viewer is, "What will become of young Joe The King?" The answer stood before us with a microphone in hand, fielding answers from an intrigued audience. Frank Whaley himself is the affirmation to his own film.
Frank in his usual charming way answered questions with enthusiasm and humour at one point recounting the casting of the film. As an actor for many years he has had the pleasure of working with numerous gifted individuals and many of these faces appear in the film. He had more difficulty with casting the younger element of the film as he explained that he "doesn't know any kids". He couldn't have asked for a better young lead than Noah Fleiss to play so convincingly Joe the King. And while I don't see this film breaking box office records or even flying off the video stands due to its depressing, sombre nature, I do believe it will be very meaningful to some people and for others prove how lucky they really are.
This movie came as a total surprise the other night. Intrigued with the
prospect of watching Frank Whalley's take on the film, we decided to
watch and it paid off royally. Mr. Whalley has learned his lesson well,
both in front, and behind the camera. Frank Whalley is a man capable of
getting a lot out of his cast, having been in that position himself.
The film is a disturbing account on a family that appears to be beyond dysfunctional. The father, Bob Henry, is a man that life has passed him by and has sought company with the bottle; he is the janitor in his children's school. As seems to be the case with men in this situation, Bob vents his frustrations with whoever crosses him, as we watch in horror the way he beats his wife.
Joe, the sensitive young son, is ridiculed in school by a teacher at a tender age, where compassion for his state in life would have worked better. As he grows, he becomes a a young man that will do whatever in order to get what he wants. He begins stealing from the stores he is sent on errands as well as from the restaurant where he is employed as a dishwasher. We watch him as he eats hungrily the leftovers that come his way before washing those plates. Eventually, Joe will go to stealing from his boss and getting into trouble that will scar him for life. The only kindness Joe receives is from the teacher counselor in his school.
The best achievement for the director is the acting quality he gets from his cast. Noah Fleiss, who portrays Joe, is the best thing in the film. He is a young talent to watch. Val Kilmer is seen as the father who seems to live in a permanent fog caused by his heavy drinking. Karen Young is Theresa, the suffering wife. Ethan Hawke plays the kind hearted teacher and Camryn Manheim is the horrible one.
"Joe the King" deserves a viewing because of the excellent direction of Frank Whalley.
by Dane Youssef
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
I remember a kid at my elementary school named Anthony. He was a quiet kid, kind of dumb, or lazy. He wore thrift store clothes and reeked of cigarette smoke. One time this kid stole my jacket and was wearing it a few days later at school. He'd crossed my name and address out of the inside tag. I think he got suspended for it. After watching this movie and thinking back, I'd wished I'd let him keep it. This film is hauntingly realistic of those kids in school who weren't like the rest of us. What we didn't know at the time about these kids, were that they came from lousy homes; their parents weren't much of parents, and they really had no way of knowing right from wrong. The movie was quite thought provoking, bringing me back to my elementary and middle school days, and finally gave me empathy for Anthony. God only knows where he is now.
As I watched this brilliant film by Frank Whaley, I found myself more and more, examining crime in general. Certainly there are more than a few people that think convicts are born bad and should do the max. However, this film shows under what conditions criminals are made and you know what, it is not always their fault. I know this sounds like liberal claptrap, but I believe it true. In this movie, we see a young man that literally has nothing. An abusive, alcoholic father that is rarely around, unless he is there to smack him around. A mother that can't manage her own affairs, much less anybody elses'. An odd brother that generally only thinks of himself. Then we have our main character who strives to make a go of it and bring them together. He is good and caring, but he is too young to provide for everybody. The family is destitute and will never be the uniting force it needs to be for the betterment of our main character's life. . Our character is uneducated and left to fend on his own, inevitably he turns to crime. Gripping movie that I could not break away from. Highly recommended.
I came across this film almost by accident. I have a habit of searching the
IMDB for other films of actors and actresses whose performances I have
enjoyed. So it was that I saw the promise of Noah Fleiss, as shown in Josh
and S.A.M., bloom to fruition in his mature performance in this wonderful
Joe is a youngster living in poverty and deprived of love. He is brutalised and humiliated by his teacher and by his drunken father. Only his favoured brother, Mike and a similarly love-starved friend, and eventually a concerned counsellor (Ethan Hawke) lend him any support. Remarkably Joe is totally unselfish and, having slaved to earn cash just to survive and to improve the lives of those close to him, he is gradually driven more and more into crime.
I watched this film with two friends and the three of us were so captivated by this touching story that none of us moved or uttered a word until long after the credits had finished rolling. When the silence was broken it was with the words "Wow! How good was that?" Remember the name, Noah Fleiss, because he is destined to be a star.
Joe the King is about a boy, who having been raised in a broken home with an
abusive drunken dad and absent mom, heads the wrong path by stealing ever
bigger things and eventually having to face the consequences for it. His
only salvation is the crack that has opened between him and his parents, and
the humanistic nature to do good in him that has been so overcome by the
other things in his daily life.
We're shown Joe coming from a broken home, which is pretty standard in these kinds of movies. That resulted in a boy that doesn't conform to the general crowd and is often confrontational. Stealing doesn't even become a moral issue anymore for him, but an opportunistic one. In the course of the film, we learn that Joe is not stealing for self-fulfillment, but is often out of necessity due to hunger. What we gradually learn is that it is also due to him having a heart deep down inside him, in which he yearns to show his feelings in the only way he can. Instances like giving away most of the ho-ho's that he just stole to a bunch of hungry kids than gathered around him, to him going out of his way to steal food from the grease spoon joint that he works in so that his brother won't go hungry, along with doing the big heist to pay off his forever in-debt father and replace all his mom's records, which were broken in one of his father's drunken rage. At the same time, he rides that bike that is on its last leg, and keeps on wearing those sneakers that are beyond worn out. This is probably why Joe is the King, although reference to it does not indicate why or implies otherwise.
His relationship with his parents is the type where only the basic things are said to each other. His parents, who are so pre-occupied, either being drunk or working to support the family, forgot to realize that the kids needs more than just a roof to live under and barely enough food in the stomach. There is this assumption by the mom that the kids would somehow turn out all right, as long as there is the bare minimal amount parenting involved. Joe yearns for more affection from them, but they do not provide any, and he doesn't know how to open up for it.
In the end, on Joe's last day of freedom, we see a glimpse of hope in him. His yearning for a family truly shows, he tries to go all out on his last meal but cannot indulge on it. And on the final goodbye between him and his parents, the emotional door opens slightly. He still have mountains of hurdle ahead, but the light at the end of the tunnel have gotten a bit brighter.
The movie takes its time telling the story without forcing the big event to happen until the characters are fully developed. Although the event that sends him away does might have been anticlimactic, this is probably due to our assumption that he is heading that way already, and the fact that there is nothing out in the real world for him anyway. It is his self-realization of himself and redemption that has more of significance.
The film does not try to sentimentalize anything, everything is told as is. The acting by Noah Fleiss, playing Joe was very realistic, playing the boy who have never been loved. His mom, played by Karen Young, is really good. Her inability to communicate with Joe, but her feelings for him showing through in her distant expressions. His father, played by Val Kilmer, is mixed. The drunken violent man is played to the extreme, but he does allow the character to have subtleties at the end.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
SPOILERS - "Joe The King" is such a bleak story of a young boy's plight that
by the time the end came, which offers some redemption, my wife had tuned
out to the point that she completely missed the point, until I re=played the
last scene for her. As Joe is led away to begin his term in reform school,
his mother is playing the Johnny Ray record about the "little white cloud",
and this is Joe's way of describing himself to his mom. It was never clear
in the film how Joe came by the moniker "the King."
The film starts when Joe is 9, doesn't mix with other school kids, is seen smoking, and later in class is reluctant to tell that his dad (Val Kilmer, in a good role) is a school janitor. Who also happens to be a drunk, and who owes many townspeople from $400 to $1000 each. Mom is not much better, a hapless sort, and Joe is kind of floating through his young life.
Most of the story takes place when Joe is 14. We see that he is a petty thief, stealing Hohos, but that's because he gets no good meals at home. We see him breaking into a car to steal jewelry to hock. We see that he is often tardy for school, but that is because he works late, illegally, as a dishwasher. One night, learning the owners are out of town, he breaks into their home to steal money.
As we eventually find out, Joe is doing all these things for his parents. he wants to pay off dad's debts. He wants to replace the record collection of mom's that dad broke in a drunken rage. His life is pretty well hopeless, and he acts it every day. He pays off the debts, gets mom's records replaced, is arrested, sentenced to reform school. Mom and dad never find out exactly what was going on. He did all that because of his love of his parents, a love that for the most part was always unspoken. Until a scene, near the end, when dad is leaving and says, "...love you." Joe stops, evaluates his hearing, and that provides the spark of his hope. At the end, his card and note to his mom, which leads her to play the song, is a statement of his love for mom.
The film ends, but we are surely to assume the 6 months Joe will spend in reform school will let him start fresh, and maybe things will be different next time. Maybe not.
This is a difficult film to watch, because we see everyone in the film leading one type of destructive life or another. Perhaps all to set up the ending, which can be a bit obscure for many viewers.
At 15 I started working until midnight on school nights. I would catch up on my sleep during Algebra class. Hey, a kid has to prioritize. My parents never asked where I was, never really cared. I think they thought the PTA was the company that helped stranded motorists. I would walk home or take the bus so that my Dad would not show up at school driving his big heap and chain smoking in front of the other kids parents in their BMW's.School dances? no. Football games? no. Dates? no. The only time I would have interaction with the other students was when the jocks where kicking my ass because I had a goofy haircut. My teachers? I went to a public school with a bunch of rich brats. If there was any energy from the teachers I assure you it was not generated towards the poor kid with the fat lip and funny hair. And, so I reminisced on my teenage days while watching Joe the King. A kid who just can not win, no matter where his heart is. Mr. Whaley, you blew me away as an actor, but you have done it as a director and writer also. If Telly Savales were here today he would say, "You've come a long way baby." I have a new idol, I call him Frank.
I've always been a huge fan of Frank Whaley, and I've always found him to be one of the most under-appreciated, really great actors to have emerged in the 1990s. Here in his directorial debut, Whaley paints a deeply moving portrait of a troubled family floundering at the poverty level. Young Noah Fleiss is absolutely heart-breaking as the morally corrupt child of an abusing father, played by Val Kilmer in his most earnest dramatic role. Whaley's movie, drawn from his own life, is a touching, moving indie that should have gotten better notice.
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