“Walkaway Joe” is a somber, reflective road drama about fathers and sons, mistakes and legacies.
Not a lot happens. The hook is the mythic pool hustling that’s been the bread and butter of many a down-and-out tale told on the big screen. And the story arc is even shorter than the road trip involved — across a chunk of Louisiana, climaxing in New Orleans.
But it’s a fine showcase for a couple of outstanding character actors, David Strathairn and Jeffrey Dean Morgan, even if it’s actually star vehicle for Julian Feder (“A Boy Called Po”).
Dallas (Feder) likes closing down the local bar’s billiards tables with his old man, Cal (Morgan). The kid may be 14, blind to the old man’s faults and oblivious to his need to slip out the back door before “last call” before somebody he owes money to shows up. He still figures he’s got a shot at following the old man into the family profession — pool shark, like Cal and Cal’s daddy before him.
His mother (Julie Ann Emery) says that cutting school to do that isn’t an option, that keeping the kid out late is no way to “be his parent and not his playmate.” Her griping goes in one of her husband’s ears and out the other.
“He’s doing fine.”
Cal doesn’t get mad. He doesn’t raise his voice. When mother and son come home, all they find is a note.
“I won’t be back this time.”
That leads to the mother-son row that has the teen throwing a couple of things in a pack, strapping his pool cue to it and bicycling off to Baton Rouge (Laplace, Louisiana is the filming location) to find his Daddy at a favorite haunt — Fatty’s.
The old man’s debtors are looking for him, too. Lucky for the kid he catches a ride with drifting RV dweller Joe (Strathairn).
The kid lies about his family and imposes himself on Joe, who sees every mistake Dallas makes and every mistake he made with his own kid (it’s implied) along the way.
“It’s a goooood thing you’re not going to live long enough to reproduce,” he lectures. Sullen Dallas can admit his bigger screwups, but Joe is always there to top off the non-apology.
“That was 75 miles PAST ‘stupid.'”
Actor turned first–time director Tom Wright (George’s African American boss on “Seinfeld”) doesn’t have a lot of incidents to work with in Michael Milillo’s first produced feature screenplay. The drama is more innate than action-oriented, although there are hustles that go awry and debt collectors capable of violence.
There’s more menace in Joe’s eventual meeting with Cal than in any fight. Morgan summons up his tough guy persona with just a look, a pause, an introduction not acknowledged.
Strathairn’s Joe wears his story on his face. Few scenes establishing the past that put Joe here, his own parenting track record, are necessary. The Oscar nominee and Emmy winner just “is” this guy, his every regret, Joe’s impatience with a kid that he won’t let himself hope is his own last chance at “parenting,” even if it’s temporary.
Feder doesn’t look 14, but the character is certainly written as naive, hotheaded and impulsive. He plays Dallas with a few cards hidden, as if there’s hope for redemption. But his accent and decision to mumble his lines make his Southern drawl a slur and nigh on impossible to decipher far too often. Any “good lines” he has are often swallowed in the performance.
The story hews closely to formula (expect a BIG GAME). But the Deep South pool hall milieu, the lived-in characters and the top drawer supporting players make “Walkaway Joe” worth sitting still for and watching, all the way through the credits.
Unrated: Violence, alcohol, teen smoking.
Cast: Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Julian Feder, David Strathairn and Julie Ann Emery.
Credits: Directed by Tom Wright, script by Michael Milillo. A Quiver release.
Running time: 1:29