King of the Hill
directed by Steven Soderbergh
Though not billed as a double-feature, director Steven Soderbergh's latest film "King of the Hill" is indeed a "two for the price of one" special. Based on the memories of A. E. Hotchner, the movie tells a two-part tale of a twelve-year-old boy surviving the Depression in St. Louis.
The movie's first hour plays like a 1930s version of the "The Wonder Years." We watch the story's hero Aaron Kurlander (Jesse Bradford) experience life's small joys and hardships: first kisses and school bullies, games of marbles and overbearing authority figures. Although these scenes practically beg for cliched voice-over narration and close-ups of Fred Savage-like doe eyes, they manage to exude charm.
That his family lives on the brink of bankruptcy in a run-down room of the seedy Empire Hotel doesn't really seem to disturb Aaron all that much as he simply goes about doing his own thing. He has managed to trick himself and those around him into believing that everything will be all right. As a result, a sense of calm and stability pervades the first part of the film. As long as Aaron rebounds quickly from his setbacks, nothing is truly troubling. When his adorable younger brother is sent away to relatives because he is too much of an expense for the family, we are somehow sure that Aaron will save the day.
And then quite suddenly, Aaron's life falls apart. Having contracted tuberculosis, Aaron's mother must leave for a sanitarium. Soon after, Aaron's Willy Loman-like father abandons him to chase some sales-man's dream in the Midwest. Orphaned, Aaron finds himself fending for his life, scraping for food, clothing and shelter. Intensely lonely and isolated, Aaron cannot turn to anyone for assistance. His only friends are a motley crew of down-and-outs, one worse off than the next. The film's second hour is a dark and macabre display of what would really happen if a child was indeed left home alone.
Gone is the sense of security and reassurance, as Soderbergh ("sex, lies and videotape," "Kafka") uses brooding music and lighting to throw his viewers out in the cold along with Aaron. We feel Aaron's hunger pangs as he cuts pictures of food out of a magazine and eats them off a plate. We worry whether or not Aaron can evade the creditors one more day. Survival seems improbable.
Yet we do not feel manipulated when Aaron ultimately comes out as the king of the hill, beating the odds of the Depression. Careful not to portray Aaron as a slick and smug Ferris Bueller type, Bradford plays him as a wide-eyed, ingenious little boy who is as amazeds as we are when he does triumph.
In assembling such a wonderful cast of grim supporting characters, Soderbergh allows Bradford to shine even more. Spalding Gray as a suicidal ex-millionaire and Elizabeth McGovern as a bitter and jaded prostitute darken the tone and mood of every scene they are in, giving the second half of the film an eerily acerbic edge. Also featured is the underrated Karen Allen as Aaron's (almost overly) benevolent teacher.
Despite the film's dual nature, "King of the Hill" is a cohesive body of work, genuinely enchanting throughout. Soderbergh has done the impossible: he has made a great film about a child's life without resorting to sentimentality and intelligence-insulting plot-twists.