Aug. 9, 2005
King of the Hill (1993)
Grade: 80/100

Director: Steven Soderbergh
Stars: Jesse Bradford, Jeroen Krabbe, Adrien Brody

What it's about. Set in 1933, during the trough of the Great Depression, middle school student Aaron (Jesse Bradford) leads a double life, as a promising student at the rich kids school, and as an impoverished and increasingly isolated son of broke and unreliable parents. In the latter role, he is forced into borderline criminal behavior to get by.

Numerous interesting actors appear in supporting roles: Karen Allen (Raiders of the Lost Ark), Elizabeth McGovern (Ordinary People), Spalding Gray (Swimming to Cambodia), Adrien Brody (The Pianist), and R&B singer Lauryn Hill.

How others will see it. A Christmas Story it isn't. This nostalgia is different, because people are struggling to survive. Despite its minor heartbreaks, though, most viewers should get hooked into seeing it through. Only the insipid, and those with limited attention spans, will not enjoy this film.

How I felt about it. A mere rung on the ladder of director Soderberg's successful career, he also wrote the screenplay, and I prefer it to his later, more heralded work. If Aaron's (mostly) plucky character seems too good to be true, this doesn't seem to limit the quality, and the kid is a worthy if not fully credible protaganist.

The father Erich (Jeroen Krabbe) seems like a failure for most of the film. He can't keep the family together, and he can't provide for them. But it has to be said that he never gives up, he makes practical decisions given his limited choices, and what appear to be idle boasts about promising business ventures actually do pan out. Like millions of other former breadwinners during the Great Depression, he really is a good father, but was leveled by economic circumstances.

Aaron is quite popular at his apartment complex. His friends there include a black elevator operator (Hill), a thief (Brody), a dissipated drinker (Gray) and his cynical prostitute (McGovern), and an epileptic teenage girl (Amber Benson). All (except McGovern) see the promise in Aaron, who is obliged to be mature beyond his years to compensate for the problems of the other family members.

Aaron is also adored by his teacher (Allen) and a few of the rich kids. But he's not popular with the bully street cop (John McConnell), who (and not without reason) lumps him in with other street urchins who are forced to steal from vendors to survive. He's also not a favorite of the landlord or his enforcer clerk Ben (Joe Chrest), since he can't pay his rent.

Aaron, you see, is not merely a wide-eyed schoolkid. He is also a representative victim of the Great Depression, and under different circumstances, he might be on his way to an Ivy League college and the privileged life. As it is, all his talents and wiles are unlikely to keep his nose from getting stamped into the dirt.