February 5, 2001 -- "Joe the King" is an American film, but it ought to have French subtitles. Director Frank Whaley proudly reveals he has never seen the movie "Star Wars." Instead, he likes small, personal, character-driven films about everyday people. That's the big difference between European films and American films. European films are about everyday, working-class people. American films are about rich people, powerful people, or highly unusual people.
The hero, Joe Henry (played by Noah Fleiss of "Josh and Sam"), is a kid from a dysfunctional family. His alcoholic father, Bob (Val Kilmer of "Red Planet") beats his wife and kids and owes money to everybody. One day Bob gets drunk and beats his wife (played by Karen Young of "Daylight") and breaks her whole collection of rare Johnnie Ray (a crooner with a great voice) records. Joe sets out to replace them.
As the man of the house, 14-year-old Joe works a night job and supplements his income by stealing everything he can lay his hands on. His crimes escalate. He breaks into a car and then breaks into a cafe, stealing a cache of money from a pornographic photo operation. He gets enough money to replace his mother's record collection and even pays off some of his father's debts. Joe is basically a good kid. Even when he steals stuff, he usually ends up giving most of it away to other people. He lives in a very cruel and cold world, but he still has a good heart.
Joe's teacher, Len Coles (Ethan Hawke of "Snow Falling on Cedars"), tries to help him, but ends up getting him in more trouble. Joe then gets in an argument with his brother, Mike (Max Ligosh of "Hackers"). A flashback scene at the beginning of the film shows Joe getting humiliated in school by his teacher (Camryn Manheim of "Happiness") for not wanting to admit what his father does for a living (he was a janitor in the school at the time).
The movie's most poignant scene comes near the end of the film when Bob, now separated from his wife, visits his son. He tells him, "There are good people with families and jobs, and then there are people like me. Don't get on the wrong side of that equation." As he drives away in his old, loud car, he says, "I love you." The boy stops, dumbfounded. He has never heard those words from his father before. Despite all of Joe's problems, we somehow get the feeling that he is going to be O.K. This is typical of the bittersweet nature of this film.
This film is what independent filmmaking is all about. It is the antithesis of a commercial Hollywood film. It deals with real families, real problems in an unblinking way. There are hundreds of kids like Joe in every major. The characters are strong, led by Kilmer and Fleiss, ably supported by the rest of the cast, including John Leguizamo (who was also an executive producer of the film) of "Summer of Sam," who plays Jorge, a co-worker of Joe's. This is an actor's movie, written and directed by Whaley, a veteran actor. Whaley's brother, John, wrote the music for the film. The cinematography, by Michael Mayers captures the gritty look of Staten Island. There's no fighting, no explosions, no special effects, no car chases, no stunts to get in the way of the acting. It isn't a "feel good" film, but it is entertaining in its own, thoughtful way. If you are tired of what Hollywood is spewing out these days, take a look. This film rates a B.
I saw this film on DVD. Some of the material for this review came from the DVD commentary track by Frank and Robert Whaley and Ethan Hawke, and from the "Anatomy of a Scene" feature on the DVD. The Region 1 DVD is rated R. It comes in widescreen letterbox format (aspect ratio 1.85:1). It includes a theatrical trailer and "Anatomy of a Scene." The English audio track is in Dolby digital 2.0 surround sound. Available subtitles are in English, Spanish and French. Dolby is a registered trademark.
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