Throughout Joe The King, there is a slow, airy quality that seems to imply a remake. Each moment has a reminiscent nostalgia, as if the film is trying to remind you of something else, of another movie.
It reminded me of films of the new wave — movies made on a shoestring budget, shot on real locations, and made by non-name-brand actors. In particular, it looked like The Little Fugitive and The 400 Blows, both of which dealt with poor children who led their lives quite apart from their parents. (Both were also a little aimless, like Joe the King, being more about character than plot.)
The Little Fugitive, 1953, Morris Engel, an American New Wave film about two brothers who spend a weekend lost without their parents at Coney Island.
Joe is introduced in the first couple shots. After the camera roams across a noisy schoolyard, it spots a solitary kindergartner hunched around the corner, smoking a cigarette. Inside, Joe’s teachers ridicule him, finally inflicting the ultimate humiliation on him: forcing him to admit that his father is the school janitor.
His father Bob (Val Kilmer, sporting a big gut that gets its own closeups) is a drunken, overbearing, abusive father. He loves his boys, but he’s better at hitting than at hugging. He sees his children as a resource to be used however he sees fit.
Bob is married to Theresa (Karen Young), Joe’s disconnected mother. She’s often not home, leaving Joe to deal with his father by himself. She’s more the idea of a mother, than an actual mother.
Joe’s kindergarten days only last a few scenes at the beginning. During the rest of the movie he’s about 13 years old (played by Noah Fleiss). He has a job washing dishes after school, and when he’s not working he hangs out with Ray (James Costa), his supportive friend with the overbite, and Mike (Max Ligosh), his older brother who tries to deny his poverty.
To the world around him, Joe is a no-good hoodlum. Joe is not above shoplifting, stealing, or random acts of vandalism when he’s bored.
The audience, however, gets a different perspective. True, he does antisocial things, but his motives aren’t cruelty or hatred, they are poverty, stifling parents, and prejudice. In a world where poor kids are accused, beaten, or at best, ignored, a few cases of petty crime don’t seem so criminal. Joe is never evil, he’s just looking out for himself.
Like The 400 Blows, Joe the King is said to be semi-autobiographical. But Truffaut presented his childhood candidly and with some sense of fun; of kids being kids. It’s presented from the child’s point of view. In contrast, Whaley seems to be apologizing for his misdeeds, making excuses for his thuggery. It’s presented from the remorseful grownup’s point of view.
For example, Joe’s teachers are cruel to the point of comic exaggeration. They were the teachers of Whaley’s colorful memories. The movie forces us to see them through his eyes. On the other hand, in The 400 Blows, Antoine’s teacher, just as cruel, was well-represented as a real human being. In both cases we understand that the teacher was unfair, but in Whaley’s version, we have to take his word for it. In The 400 Blows, we see for ourselves. Truffaut’s presentation is all the more convincing because it asks the audience to empathize, not just sympathize.
In another example, one of the movie’s stronger metaphors makes an excuse for Joe’s misbehavior. It says the reason Joe was bad is that he never got any nourishment — literally and figuratively.
Although he works at a restaurant, and is often ordered to bring home food for the family, Joe never gets any serious food. He steals Ho-Hos, not very nourishing to start with, and is then forced to share them with all the other kids. He eats a few scraps from the dishes he has to wash. At home the Tupperware contains unidentifiable, rancid gobs and the milk bottles have only spoiled milk. On his “last day on Earth,” so to speak, he orders a gigantic meal, alone, from a diner, then takes one look at the happy, normal family in the next booth and barfs his only bite. It’s not until the end, when he’s able to apologize to his mother, that he finally is able to eat something nourishing.
I’m a sucker for a good filmed metaphor. But ironically, this metaphor represents what I disliked most about the movie, namely, that it makes excuses for its hero. It’s a big, elaborate way of say “it’s not my fault.”
Ultimately, I give it the “thumbs up” because of its intelligent structure and editing. It’s not for all tastes because it’s a little slow and aimless. But it’s not a bad indie film and it’s a pretty good character study.