Steven Soderbergh is a talented, experimental, sometimes avant-garde filmmaker that doesn't make jokey movies (the Coen Brothers) or gimmicky ones (Christopher Nolan) or Tarantino ones. In even his more mainstream movies, he's distinguished. He's one of the few (relatively) young directors that makes "real" movies (not to knock the "fake" ones) about a wide array of subjects. He doesn't need to be cool or ambiguous all the time.
Set in St. Louis in 1933, "King of the Hill" is like a light kids version of "The Pianist" (it's even got Adrien Brody!). The film centers around the 12 year-old Aaron Kurlander, and his family -- his mother, father, and younger brother, Sullivan. The Depression is in full force, and Aaron's parents have come to the agreement that the only way to save money and be able to continue raising their two sons is to have young Sullivan shipped off on a Greyhound bus to live with his uncle. Soon thereafter, Aaron's mother is taken out of the picture when she has to go for a stay at a sanitarium. The family lives in a hotel run by a bank, and Aaron's father isn't paying the bills; soon he's out of the picture when he goes off looking for work, leaving Aaron on his own to fend for himself.
He makes friends with a rich nerdy kid at school when he rescues him from some school marble bullies, and comes up with schemes of how to make money, like having canary's mate, since a newborn will fetch three dollars. He spins tall tales in order to get by at school, like telling his teacher that his parents work for the government. His hunky, older pal also living in the hotel, Lester (Adrien Brody) helps him about; in one incident they end up stealing Aaron's father's car, and with Aaron too small to be able to reach the brake pedal, he ends up going on a scary trip around town.
When one girl from school invites him over for supper, he gets caught in his own web of deceit when the school kids, at an after-graduation party where Aaron wins a special prize, hear different stories about what his parents really are. (Government workers, archaeologists, pilots.) At the same party, he's exposed for what (they think) he is: a poor kid and a teacher's pet.
He befriends a gawky girl in his hotel with a crush on him when she invites him over for hot dogs and dancing, but ends up having some sort of fit on the floor. (Epileptic seizure?)
The cop out in the street is just looking to bust some young punk kid, and the hotel bellhop is just waiting for Aaron to slip up, so he can lock him out of his room. (Look fast for Lauryn Hill as the hotel elevator operator!)
The movie looks great, both in the set deco and the juicy, round cinematography. The music is a plus, and nearly all the performances are first-rate. Jesse Bradford, with his big, expressive eyes, is just terrific as Aaron. He's got an ultra-pleasant face to watch, and his acting is totally fresh, without any hint of affectation. (Unlike his father's strange accent.)
"King of the Hill" is a lovely, great-looking period piece. A sometimes heartwarming, sometimes heartbreaking dramedy without any pretensions to be anything other than a good little gem of a movie. And that it is.
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