CAN A child growing up in the face of oppression make a success of his life? Can goodness grow out of hopelessness? In Frank Whaley's "Joe the King," the odds are stacked firmly against such possibilities -- at least, for Joe.
When we meet him, the 9-year-old boy (played at first by Peter Tambakis) is facing the withering animosity of his teacher (Camryn Manheim) who clearly hates the boy. Forced to disclose his ambition for Career Day, Joe claims he wants to be a crooner.
The teacher, who knows he's being flippant, presses him relentlessly. Now she wants him to reveal his father's profession, which -- she knows -- amounts to cleaning the classrooms of that very school.
Joe, a sullen, crew-cut kid who is already smoking, squirms with embarrassment. He lies protectively about his father. The teacher humiliates him with a spanking.
We have to wonder why he's protecting his father (Val Kilmer), who's perpetually befuddled with drink, surfacing from his stupor either to beat or yell at his two sons or his intimidated wife (Karen Young).
Five years later, life for Joe (now, Noah Fleiss) has become worse. With few friends and a father who is now jobless, ducking from increasing debt and drinking harder, he's pretty much on his own. Even his brother (Max Ligosh), busy with friends and frustrations of his own, is emotionally out of reach.
Even though he gets little love or support from his family, Joe becomes obsessed with clearing up his father's debt. Working as a dishwasher is not enough, however. So Joe, whose moral compass has become increasingly unreliable, takes desperate measures.
Like Francois Truffaut's "The 400 Blows," which it occasionally resembles, "Joe the King" leads you through a miserable childhood without sentimentality or relief. The effect is torturous. You find yourself waiting for something to happen -- anything to bring this cycle of suffering to some kind of conclusion. But writer-director Whaley, who up until now has made his name as an actor, keeps you deliberately on edge. When this movie, which shared the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at this year's Sundance Film Festival, does come to a close, Whaley's cumulative intentions become clear and surprisingly moving. Suddenly, all of Joe's suffering -- begins to mean something, albeit in an almost unfathomable way. On some subconscious level, you begin to feel a sense of light.
JOE THE KING (R, 100 minutes) -- Contains domestic violence and obscenity. At the Cineplex Odeon Inner Circle 3.