Joe the King

Movie review by
Brian Costello, Common Sense Media
Joe the King Movie Poster Image
Coming-of-age movie with mature themes, lots of profanity.
  • R
  • 1999
  • 93 minutes

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

For all the despair, suffering, and bad behavior this movie shows, it does leave a glimmer of hope at the end that Joe is going to start turning his life around. 

Positive Role Models & Representations

Joe's father is an abusive alcoholic. The adult authority figures in Joe's life offer no real help or guidance, and many seem to make it worse by lending money to Joe's father or mock him openly because his father is a janitor at the local school. While essentially a good kid, Joe is sullen and angry, turning to crime to make money -- breaking into cars and breaking into the restaurant where he works to steal the cash box. His mother tries, but she is constantly working and bears the brunt of Joe's father's abuse. 


A father is physically abusive to his son, smacking him in the head while cursing at him. A boy is shown beaten up in the aftermath of an after-school fight with a boy much bigger and stronger than he is. A young boy is spanked by his teacher in front of the entire class after refusing to divulge to the class that his father is the school janitor. A boy breaks into a restaurant and ransacks the office in search of the cash box; when the cook, an elderly alcoholic man, shows up, the boy knocks him down the stairs as he tries to make his escape. In the midst of this robbery, the boy sustains a deep cut on his ankle.


A man who works in a restaurant openly brags of the sex he had over the previous weekend. Talk of "serious f--king." Reference made to a "jerk-off room." Boys at a roller rink make lewd comments about "nice t-tties." Two teens kiss. 


Frequent profanity, including the constant use of "f--k," used by both children and adults. "D--k," "bitches," "s--t," "retarded," "crap," "t-tties." 

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

The father of the movie is almost always either drunk or hungover, slurring his speech, hurling both physical and verbal abuse at his wife and sons. Other adult characters are shown drinking at work, including an old alcoholic cook in the kitchen where Joe works. Kids smoke cigarettes. 

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Joe the King is a 1999 coming-of-age movie in which the title character, surrounded by alcoholism, abuse, and all-around bad adult role models, turns to stealing as both a way to channel his rage and to try to make things right with those around him. There is child abuse -- the father is an alcoholic who verbally and physically abuses his wife and kids, slapping them in the heads, breaking their belongings, and offering zero emotional or financial support. Joe is spanked repeatedly on his bare rear end in front of the entire class by the teacher when he refuses to humiliate himself by telling everyone that his father is the school janitor. Kids smoke, curse, and scream at their parents, and the adults aren't much better. The movie is set in the 1970s, hearkening back to a time when it was OK for parents to send their kids to the corner store for cigarettes and alcohol and when teachers and guidance counselors could smoke in school hallways without repercussions. As a dishwasher in a restaurant kitchen, Joe urinates all over the food of the bully who beat up his older brother. There is frequent profanity from both kids and adults, including "f--k." A man who works in a restaurant openly brags of the sex he had over the previous weekend. Reference made to a "jerk-off room" and comments on breasts. While a bleak and depressing story, there does seem to be a faint glimmer of hope as the movie goes on -- hope that Joe, who, despite his misbehavior and environment, is a basically good kid who's going to turn his life around. 

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What's the story?

Joe (Noah Fleiss) is the 14-year-old son of an alcoholic father (Val Kilmer) who is also the janitor of his school. His father is verbally and physically abusive to Joe, his brother, and his mother, and it seems that his father owes money to everyone, including some of his teachers. Joe makes money as an illegally employed dishwasher, but what little he makes cannot overcome a home life of bleak poverty. After being late to school yet again and threatened with expulsion, Joe must sit alone in a study hall classroom watched over by the school guidance counselor (Ethan Hawke), who is the only adult who takes an active interest in his life and doesn't abuse or vilify him. Nonetheless, when Joe comes home one night to find his father has broken all his mother's records, he decides he's going to try to make things right, and while his solution -- breaking into cars and the restaurant where he works -- is not the best, the consequences of his actions reveal the faintest glimmer of hope in all of this despair that Joe might change his life for the better. 

Is it any good?

Joe the King is a bleak but compelling coming-of-age movie that offers the faintest glimmer of hard-earned hope in the midst of much despair. Noah Fleiss' portrayal of the 14-year-old Joe reveals the inner complexity of a boy struggling to fit in, meet girls, and survive some of the more difficult school years but also contend with a terrible home life exacerbated by an alcoholic father (well-played by Val Kilmer). And that is what makes this movie as good as it is -- without saying it, the actors reveal the extent of the suffering of these characters.

Those looking for a sweet and sentimental coming-of-age movie are advised to look elsewhere. With cursing and smoking young teens who grow up too soon to poor adult role models of all varieties, this movie pulls no punches. What emerges is the struggle of a teen who finds a way to grow up to be a much better adult from those he grew up around. 

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about coming-of-age movies. How is this a coming-of-age movie? What are the ways in which it's similar to and different from other such movies? 

  • How does this movie portray drinking? How do movies and TV shows glamorize drinking, and how is this movie different? 

  • In what ways do Joe's actions reflect his environment, and in what ways does the movie show that Joe somehow turns his life around? 

Movie details

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