Too many films about working-class or impoverished childhoods seem to be set between the 1930s and '50s, often inadvertently succumbing to generational nostalgia in their depiction of economically depressed environments. Actor Frank Whaley's (Swimming With Sharks, Career Opportunities) surprisingly assured if lengthy debut as both director and writer, Joe The King should at least be commended for portraying juvenile delinquency in the '70s. While the results are still familiar, and hindered by a weak start, Whaley's film does have a flavor all its own. Noah Fleiss plays a 14-year-old troublemaker whose dysfunctional family leads him to enter into a life of escalating criminality. This 400 Blows scenario—Whaley's film is apparently semi-autobiographical—rarely resorts to humor, leaving the film a perhaps accurate but oppressively somber look at how social class and family help shape your future. Throughout the film, Whaley uses high-profile cameos (Ethan Hawke, Camryn Manheim, John Leguizamo) to good effect, though Val Kilmer plays the part of deadbeat dad like he's about to either pass gas or pass out. Yet at Joe The King's center is Fleiss, whose premature sneer and sullen eyes mark a welcome new screen presence. He carries the film, giving the story a hint of pathetic verisimilitude even as Joe The King touches on many of Hollywood's most pervasive poverty cliches.