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School CP - October 1999

Corpun file 4379


The New York Times, 17 October 1999

'Joe the King'

Picturing a Lost Boy, Drawing on Memory

By Karen Durbin


Some addiction counselors classify the children of alcoholics into behavioral types: the hero child, who tries to save the family by doing everything right; the scapegoat, who constantly fails and gets into trouble; and the lost child, who goes AWOL from the family dynamic and develops a private solution, sometimes with disastrous results.

With the ironically titled "Joe the King," which opened on Friday, Frank Whaley has made an intensely affecting yet unsentimental movie about a lost child. That the film contains a large dollop of autobiography -- it is dedicated to his parents -- only makes this 36-year-old actor's achievement more striking.

"Joe the King" is Whaley's first outing as a writer and director, and if this is what's considered a small film, it's an exceptionally rich one. The movie won the screenwriting award at this year's Sundance Festival, and it opens with a beautifully composed pan of schoolchildren on the lawn at recess that feels like a tour of childhood itself.

We see children playing, reading, chatting, roughhousing and, in a few lonely instances, wistfully looking on. Finally, beyond a dense barrier of leafy shrubs, the camera finds Joe. He's slumped against the side of the building, his hands in his pockets and his back to the world.

His hair is so short you wonder if his head has been shaved. When the bell goes off, he jerks around to reveal a gaunt face and hard, fearful eyes; a half-smoked cigarette droops from his mouth. He can't be more than 9 or 10.

The first 20 minutes of "Joe the King" are background, sketching in the misery of Joe's early childhood before moving on. His father (played without a scrap of vanity by a bloated, bleary-looking Val Kilmer) is a surly drunk who does some of his drinking at Joe's school, where he's the janitor.

This makes him all but ubiquitous in his son's life. It also makes Joe the target of cruelty by other children, and by a sadistic teacher, who gives him a bare-bottom spanking in front of the class after he throws an eraser at a child who has razzed him.

"If it happened today," Whaley says, "she'd be arrested. She pulled down my pants, and it was mortifying. It's like a dream -- you know how you remember moments of it? I remember the kids in the class looked like they were in shock. They were as traumatized as I was."

This scene points up the perils of autobiographical art. The teacher, played with monstrous relish by Camryn Manheim -- it's one of the movie's more piquant pleasures that we get to see some high-profile actors in down-and-dirty roles -- is a villain of near-Dickensian dimensions. Whaley says this is one incident that was drawn from life, but reality has a way of pushing realism into melodrama. What saves the scene is the way it's shot, with just the faintest touch of Grand Guignol wit.

Whaley likes to hear that his film is unsentimental. "When you're dealing with something of a personal nature, it's easy to become precious with it," he says. "Something you might sit at home and cry about may not be important to the rest of the world."


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