Joe the King

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Joe the King, a debut writing/directing effort from actor Frank Whaley, offers a deeply sad picture of mistreated youth, told with considerable skill, and blessedly shorn of sentimentality, from the point of view of Joe Henry (Noah Fleiss), son of an abusive, wife-beating, alcoholic father (Val Kilmer).

The film’s opening sequence, a school scene when Joe is nine years old, establishes the pattern of unjust and disproportionate punishment to which Joe is subjected. Humiliated as the son of the drunken school janitor, an authoritarian teacher, surely working out her own issues in a response disproportionate to Joe’s minor offense, pulls down his pants in front of the class and spanks his bare behind. Even the other kids are shocked and sympathetic. What Whaley has caught and conveyed is the feeling of powerlessness of a kid in the face of authority, fair or not.

Cleverly, Whaley offers another scene in the same time frame, in which Joe’s father is equally powerless and subjected to verbal humiliation by the school principal; he can’t retaliate since his job is at stake.

With a quick five year jump forward in time, the balance of the film takes place while Joe is an adolescent of fourteen. But Joe the King doesn’t dissolve into ordinary teenage angst. The unjust teacher of Act I seems now a minor prelude to Joe’s suffering at the hands of his father, who remains in a drunken haze, finding fault with any convenient target, and expressing his rage at his own powerlessness by lashing out with fist at whoever is nearby.

The film, with Fleiss’ extraordinary performance, shows not only the deterioration of the boy’s behavior (chronic lateness for school, petty theft growing to grander larceny), but more importantly, the increasing loss of caring, the self-protective hardening of the kid who needs to retreat into himself to escape the ugliness of his world that is not of his making. Whaley allows for moments of humor and moments when the victim strikes back, providing some contrast from the dominant bleak events and throwing them into sharp relief.

In a nicely drawn scene at the local roller rink, Joe watches with jealousy as his older brother courts a girl from the other side of the tracks, a girl to whom Joe is attracted. She is resented on the surface by Joe and his equally poor buddies, but coveted in that she represents the comfort and the perceived greater safety of middle class life. Advances made by a girl closer to Joe’s home turf leave him uninterested.

The arching line of the film is the inevitable downward curve of Joe’s destiny, but its richness is in the range of small incidents that together explore subtleties not only of the boy’s oppression, but of his feelings and youthful sensitivities, of hopefulness before all hope is lost.

By the time deteriorating circumstances push Joe’s father to behave like a father for the first time, it is clearly too late for Joe, but he is surely moved at the revelation. As he is shipped out to a juvenile detention center, he clings first to his brother and then to his pathetic, ineffective, but loving mother. It may be a dysfunctional family, but it’s his and it’s family. He can only guess, and we imagine all to well, the horrors yet to come.

Arthur Lazere

San Francisco ,
Mr. Lazere founded in 1998 and worked tirelessly to promote its potential as a means for communicating a distinctly personal yet wide-ranging selection of arts reviews. Under his leadership, the site grew in esteem as well as in “circulation", and is well-regarded nationally and internationally as a source for up-to-date, well-written criticism. Arthur passed away on September 30, 2006.