JOE THE KING
Release Date: October 15, 1999
Starring: Noah Fleiss, Val Kilmer & John
Distributor: Trimark Pictures
Director: Frank Whaley
Producer: Jennifer Dewis, Scott Macauly
II, Lindsay Marx, & Robin
Writer: Frank Whaley
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Joe, played with solemn assurance by Noah Fleiss, is a 14-year-old boy living in a lower class neighborhood. His father, played by Val Kilmer, is an alcoholic who goes on rage binges, beating his wife and children. Joe's mother is a battered wife shattered by the sheer weight of living. His school is an uncaring institution that seems more intent on insuring his timeliness at school than his education. His older brother, while in the same situation, is closer to leaving it and seems better prepared to handle the pain.
Reminiscent of the teenage boy in Francois Truffaut's 1959 movie, THE 400 BLOWS, Joe handles the horror of his life by hiding under the porch and getting cash via pawning goods gleaned through petty theft. He works in a small caf=E9 as a dishwasher to make ends meet. John Leguizamo plays a sex-crazed fellow dishwasher who's one of the few adults that is actually nice to Joe. Unlike THE 400 BLOWS, JOE THE KING does not evoke the beauty of life, even an abandoned one. Instead, it produces a dread while the audience waits for something positive to happen to Joe. At one point, Joe's brother remarks, "Don't you wish sometimes you could just disappear?"
While his father beats his family and neighbors constantly ask Joe when his father is going to pay them back, Joe gets in more and more trouble at school. He lacks any kind of moral structure and doesn't think twice about busting a car window to steal a purse or pawning off the valuable rings he finds inside. The movie reveals an insight, however, by showing what Joe does with the money. During one of his father's binges, Joe's dad had broken all of his mother's records and left them in pieces on the floor. This breaks Joe's heart, so he begins to frequent a record shop and purchase some of his mother's favorite albums.
Because of his constant tardiness, Joe is thrown into counseling at school. This results in his meeting a decent counselor played by Ethan Hawke. The counselor ends up unwittingly being responsible for Joe's eventual incarceration, which the movie indicates may not be a good development. Maybe incarceration is what Joe needs, but the few scenes involved suggest it's another icy step into the abyss of Joe's future.
While moments of JOE THE KING shimmer in the fine performances of the skilled cast, the movie plays like a foreign film. It's a slice of life story, and a tragic one at that. Frank Whaley, the director, wrote the movie based on childhood memories. Although the writing does wring plenty of emotion, and, in a tie with another independent movie, GUINEVERE, won the "Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award" at the Sundance Film Festival, the arc of the story goes from bad to worse, suggesting that life is a random mix of events in a harsh, cruel world.
Thus, ultimately the movie does not satisfy because, while the writing and acting are excellent, the worldview is tragic and doesn't really tell the truth, that there is indeed redemption and hope. After all, the author just made a million dollar movie, a situation that would give the average person a sense of hope for the future. Audiences will wish JOE THE KING had given a glimmer of that hope.