King of the Hill (United States, 1993)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

During the Great Depression in Saint Louis, Aaron Kurlander's (Jesse Bradford) family is falling apart. His little brother has been shipped off to live with an uncle, his sick mother (Lisa Eichhorn) has been admitted to a sanitarium, and his father (Jeroen Krabbe) must go on the road to make money. So Aaron is left on his own in a fleabag hotel, with no money and few friends. Life becomes a struggle for the twelve year old -- the hotel wants to evict him and his meager supply of food is running dangerously low -- and it's only through his remarkable resourcefulness that he manages to survive.

Steven Soderbergh (best known for his debut feature sex, lies, and videotape) has taken the time and effort necessary to bring 1933 Saint Louis to life with uncompromising accuracy. Many period pieces give only token acknowledgment to the era in which they take place, but King of the Hill has the Great Depression woven inextricably throughout.

1993 has seen numerous coming-of-age features. American Heart, This Boy's Life, and Searching for Bobby Fischer> are a few of the better ones, but none can match King of the Hill's depth of character. Soderbergh has carefully developed this movie to draw out the drama without resorting to tired plot devices. The fact is, Aaron's story, no matter how plain it might initially seem, is powerful in its simplicity.

Of course, to do justice to the plot, an effective young actor was needed to play Aaron. Jesse Bradford proved to be an apt choice. His performance is unforced, regardless of the complexity of emotions he is expected to show. Take, for example, the touching, bittersweet relationship that develops between Aaron and a lonely, epileptic girl living down the hall. These scenes have a remarkable resonance.

While no one else has nearly as much screen time as Bradford, the young actor has established performers supporting him. Foremost are Jeroen Krabbe and Lisa Eichhorn as Aaron's father and mother, each of whom does a fine job with their material. Krabbe comes across as concerned for his children, but painfully distracted by financial difficulties. Eichhorn takes pains to bring sympathetic realism to a small role.

Adrien Brody gives an energetic performance as Lester, Aaron's best friend and mentor. Noted monologist Spalding Gray plays an intelligent, frustrated middle-aged man whose relationship with a prostitute (Elizabeth McGovern) confuses Aaron. The two are obviously intimate, yet they appear to have only contempt for one another. McGovern, like Karen Allen as Aaron's teacher, is underused.

The narrative is presented in a straightforward manner; Soderbergh doesn't employ any unusual chronologies. His style is frank, not quirky, and lends itself to a number of powerful images: a starving boy cutting out pictures of food and serving them on a plate, a homeless man waving hello, and a puddle of blood-tainted water seeping from underneath a closed door. With an accomplished director at the helm, King of the Hill becomes a remarkable odyssey about a resilient young hero who uses both his imagination and his sense of reality to survive.

King of the Hill (United States, 1993)

Run Time: 1:49
U.S. Release Date: 1993-09-08
MPAA Rating: "PG" (Mature Themes)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1