Best (little-seen) rentable movie shot in / about Staten Island (2008)

Joe the King

Frank Whaley's directorial debut, Joe the King, (1999) is one of the very few films to take Staten Island seriously as a subject and locale, and it does so with a vengeance. Whaley was apparently working through some serious baggage, and it shows—the movie is scuffed-knuckle raw, bearing witness to a "semi-autobiographical" childhood endured by a 14-year-old in the mid '70s (Noah Fleiss), whose hardscrabble life makes the Indian orphans in Satyajit Ray films look lucky. Central to his misery is his abusive and drunk father (a scary Val Kilmer), and his mother (Karen Young), who's bitterly sick with the waves of bile she barely holds back. Just to eat, the kid has to wash dishes in a greasy spoon; perpetually late to school, he's eventually targeted by a kindly guidance counselor (Ethan Hawke), but there's no idealism here—Joe's path leads to crime and disaster. The movie's filthy with details—every yard, chip of peeling paint, and dented junker is indelibly real. Whaley grew up in Syracuse, but for him S.I. epitomized the cluttered, self-destructive working-class life he obviously knows in his blood.


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