A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
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.
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?
- In theaters: July 11, 1999
- On DVD or streaming: February 19, 2004
- Cast: Val Kilmer, Noah Fleiss, Ethan Hawke
- Director: Frank Whaley
- Studio: Lions Gate
- Genre: Drama
- Topics: Middle School, Misfits and Underdogs
- Run time: 93 minutes
- MPAA rating: R
- MPAA explanation: Language and abusive situations concerning a child.
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Common Sense Media's unbiased ratings are created by expert reviewers and aren't influenced by the product's creators or by any of our funders, affiliates, or partners.