Actor Frank Whaley has appeared in more than 30 movies, including Swimming with Sharks and Pulp Fiction. But none of them cuts as close to the bone, I suspect, as Whaley's debut in the writer-director ranks, Joe the King. Set in the '70s and carefully described by its maker as "loosely autobiographical," this Sundance award-winner is the harrowing chronicle of a brutish father, a defeated mother and a criminally neglected boy who's headed for trouble. Whatever else is weak or indulgent in this fledgling effort -- self-consciousness and a certain grim solemnity come to mind -- it has the jolt of truth about it, like a lot of thinly veiled fiction.
Dysfunctional parents and abused children have been the stuff of movies since Charlie Chaplin turned the crank, and the modern classics of the genre, from The 400 Blows to The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds, have dogged staying power. The traumas of youth -- the real traumas, not trifles like getting a zit on prom night or failing to make the football team -- beget the most terrible secrets of families, the ones that stick around forever: The damages inflicted by a mother's wrath or a drunken father's fist can endure for generations.
In Joe the King there's a vague whiff of the Farrelly Brothers' new coming-of-age film, Outside Providence, a somewhat gentler and much funnier piece of business in which Alec Baldwin plays the unstable king of the castle. But the similarities between Whaley's film and 1993's This Boy's Life are positively spooky. In that tale of woe, adapted from Tobias Wolff's confessional memoir, young Leonardo DiCaprio does primal battle with a monstrous stepfather played by Robert De Niro and manages to survive. Here, Noah Fleiss's 14-year-old Joe Henry (read: Frank Whaley?) goes at it with his dear old dad, in the person of an explosive, booze-sodden Val Kilmer, and the results are no less heartbreaking.
There's no point in drawing parallels between the perpetually angry school janitor Kilmer portrays this time on screen and the loose cannon the supermarket tabloids claim the actor really is. Let's just say Whaley's casting choice is ideal and leave it at that: When smirking Val takes a swig from a half-pint of Wild Turkey or cuffs the kid around, he looks as if he means it.
Clearly Whaley means it, too. George Orwell, always a better essayist than novelist, tipped off his readers six decades ago that a writer's agenda usually includes punishing past tormentors, and that hasn't changed. In Joe the King Whaley takes out what can be only old grievances against young Joe's heartless, lunkheaded teachers, who make Mrs. Tingle look like Mother Teresa, or the tyrant who illegally employs him as a restaurant dishwasher and all the other unfeeling, dull-witted, self-centered creeps who bring him low. Downtrodden Mom (Karen Young) earns mixed reviews -- she's at once victim, perpetrator and enabler -- while Dad gets the entire fusillade of a son's stored-up rage, uneasily mixed with regret. Kilmer's father is a wounded beast, but a beast nonetheless -- a man, just for a start, who won't buy his son new shoes but screams bloody murder about the condition of the old ones.
Young Fleiss is a revelation. In this portrayal of a troubled boy, it might have been easy to simply wail and chomp the scenery, but with Whaley's help Fleiss builds Joe's impending crisis layer by quiet layer, from the gloom of his joyless home life to his distracted performance in the classroom to his growing prowess as a thief. One telling scene unfolds in a roller rink, where Joe's older brother, also gravely damaged, strikes a tough-guy pose while the kid, baffled by puberty and startled by the advances of an aggressive girl, tries to dance. It looks as if he's shaking himself to pieces, or trying to throw off demons. In fact, that's what his life's about. From petty shoplifting, he graduates to rifling school lockers and cars, then burglarizes his boss's apartment. Sorely in need of approval from anyone -- Mom, big brother, an older acquaintance (John Leguizamo) at the restaurant -- Joe can squeeze a drop of satisfaction only from theft. But the spark of hope has not completely left him: Desperate to set something, anything, right in life, he spends part of his stolen cash paying off one of Dad's nagging debts, and more of it to replace Mom's cherished collection of Johnny Ray records, which her husband has smashed in a drunken rage.
The encounters between Joe and his father are unsettling, to say the least. Kilmer doesn't just steam and threaten, he builds an aura of violence around him. It is so palpable that when he shouts, "I'm gonna knock your fuckin' head off," you expect him to literally do it. Instead, we are left to wonder what will befall Joe first -- serious injury by Dad's hand, or a stretch in reform school. When that die is cast, Whaley gives his teenage hero a sad last hurrah -- a return trip to the roller rink, a solitary final meal at a diner, the decision to throw away his bicycle. Joe Henry's childhood is about to vanish without a trace. Only then does he shed a tear.
With Joe the King Whaley works us over, puts us through the emotional wringer, manipulates us -- right up to the last shot, in which the camera tracks down a corridor and envelops itself in Joe's frightened face. This is a blunt and obvious movie about the terrors of childhood, and that's good. Life itself is blunt and obvious for kids like Joe, and it's best that we know it, lest we fail to pray for their survival.
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