“King of the Hill” has all the rich satisfactions of a fine novel. A marvelous comeback for writer-director Steven Soderbergh after his problematic sophomore effort, “Kafka,” this densely detailed, superbly acted evocation of a resourceful boy’s life during the depths of the Depression animates another time and place, while quietly underlining the parallels to contemporary problems and struggles. Film’s qualities will please specialized, sophisticated viewers more than the general public, but careful marketing could generate an audience for it.
It only takes Soderbergh a few minutes to establish that he is working on all cylinders, as he asserts a feeling of total authority over his material in deftly etched scenes that illuminate the imaginative world of his young protagonist and define the desperate straits of his characters. This is a bracingly intelligent film about an intelligent kid, as well as a study of the strengths and frailties of families.
Drawing upon A.E. Hotchner’s autobiographical 1972 book about his St. Louis childhood, Soderbergh creates a vibrant picture of the Middle American social fabric while maintaining sharp focus on the changing fortunes of 12-year-old Aaron Kurlander (Jesse Bradford), whose family unit is disintegrating as the tale begins.
Living in the seedy Empire Hotel in a working-class part of town, the Kurlanders find themselves forced to send away the younger son, Sullivan (Cameron Boyd), to live with a relative in order to save money, and consumptive mom (Lisa Eichhorn) shortly needs to repair to a sanitarium.
While Mr. Kurlander (Jeroen Krabbe) scrapes by, awaiting word of a good job, Aaron excels at school and becomes involved in the lives of some of the down-and-outers at the hotel. As most of his classmates are privileged, upper-class kids, Aaron defensively begins inventing tall tales about his family , which gives him a mysterious reputation.
By contrast, his neighbors at the hotel have an assortment of problems that force Aaron to a more mature reading of the world. Ella (Amber Benson) is a nervous, bespectacled girl suffering from epilepsy. Mr. Mungo (Spalding Gray) is a formerly wealthy alcoholic who eases his pain with prostie Lydia (Elizabeth McGovern). The grungy bellboy (Joseph Chrest) keeps an eagle eye on everyone.
At film’s midpoint, Mr. Kurlander gets a position as a traveling salesman, which leaves Aaron alone at the Empire without financial resources. Winning the top award for achievement at school does nothing to alleviate his problems at the hotel.
Slowly, however, the splintered family begins pulling back together, leaving the story with an upbeat ending still tempered by the picture of life’s severity that comprises the bulk of the picture.
Soderbergh’s approach is shot through with an appreciation for the value of both school learning and street smarts, as well as an unsentimental nostalgia for a time when there was a belief that anything was possible in America. Although times were much tougher in the depths of the Depression than they are now, the spirit on display is more energetic and hopeful than it seems to be today, and the lack of cynicism in the face of such adversity is refreshing.
Down to the smallest roles, such as the young black woman who runs the hotel elevator, the tyrannical street cop who runs the neighborhood and the rich girl who takes an interest in Aaron, all the characters are indelibly drawn, resulting in a brilliant gallery of types from all society levels.
But despite all its excellences, the film wouldn’t work nearly so well without Jesse Bradford. His Aaron is exceedingly well spoken, a sort of exemplar of the limitless potential that can exist in children before they are damaged, limited or brought down. As a boy increasingly forced to apply his creativity to his life rather than his imaginative world, Bradford simply gives one of the best pre-teen performances in memory.
Entire ensemble cast is first-rate. Along with those already mentioned, Adrien Brody is especially notable as a young Jewish fellow who helps Aaron through some of his more difficult jams.
St. Louis, with its brick streets, vast turn-of-the-century mansions and remnants of industrial-revolution America, is splendidly used to evoke a particular aspect of the nation’s history. Working on a relatively modest budget for such an ambitious period piece, production designer Gary Frutkoff, costume designer Susan Lyall and lenser Elliot Davis have made outstanding contributions. Soderbergh himself edited adroitly and tightly, while Cliff Martinez’s score is lively.