Movie Review By Monica Sullivan
"Joe the King" is a powerful film about child abuse, seen from the perspective of its title character. Joe Henry (Noah Fleiss, 14, in a tremendous performance) grows up in a technically nuclear family: Val Kilmer is his bloated, alcoholic father Bob, Karen Young is his overworked mother Theresa & Max Ligosh is his slightly older brother Mike. Like many alcoholic dads, Bob batters Joe when he isn't trashing Theresa's precious record collection. Joe develops a stoical mask that occasionally cracks when he reveals feelings of defiance or fear. His life is riddled with responsibilities: school, which he doesn't care about, an illegal job as a dishwasher, which he needs because of Bob's continuous unemployment, and worst of all, the wretchedness of his home life. When he tries to have so-called fun at a roller rink, he can't, because he doesn't know how. He reacts to normal life with other kids like an astronaut stuck on another planet without an oxygen tank. All Joe knows how to do is escape to dismal but familiar routines: scraping leftover food off customers' plates and shoving it in his mouth, dodging his dad's many creditors & drifting towards his equally forlorn brother like a shell-shocked ally on a battlefield. Joe seeks solutions which don't make sense unless you're inside his head, where director Frank Whaley forces viewers to be.
Joe tries to replace his mother's record collection in a way that throws his entire existence into chaos. Brother Mike is too miserable with his own problems to do more than stagger through each day like a ghost & sleep in the closet at night. A flakey co-worker (John Leguizamo, who supplies the film with its only lightness of tone) tries to protect Joe. James Costa, as a self-serving friend named Ray, whose parent is also an alcoholic, casually betrays Joe without a flicker of malice, then asks if he can borrow his bicycle. A well-meaning teacher (played by former child actor Ethan Hawk) tries to help Joe, but only makes things worse. It's a reality Joe already understands only too well: any attempt to improve his lot in life will always lead to disaster. In one heartbreaking sequence, Joe orders all his favorite foods at a diner from Jenny Robertson as a waitress with an angelic smile, but he's literally too heartsick to eat any of them. There are no happy endings in sight for "Joe the King") and it's a tribute to Whaley's outstanding direction & everyone s remarkable performances that this ultra grim narrative manages to be as compelling as it is. We may loathe the childhood that Joe and his brother are forced to live, but we need to see it. For many kids on Earth, it's the only childhood they will ever know.
© 1999 - Monica Sullivan - Air Date: 10/20/99
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