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King of the Hill

Posted by martinteller on June 27, 2014

It’s 1933 in St. Louis, and Aaron (Jesse Bradford) is about to graduate from 8th grade with high honors.  But things aren’t going well for him at home.  His little brother Sullivan (Cameron Boyd) has been sent away to an uncle, with the family unable to afford the extra mouth to feed.  His mother (Lisa Eichhorn) is ill and has gone off for another extended stay in the sanitorium.  And his father Eric (Jeroen Krabbé) has finally landed a job selling watches… out of state.  This leaves young Aaron to fend for himself in their dingy hotel.  Eviction is looming as the vile porter Ben (Joseph Chrest) loves nothing more than locking unpaid tenants out of their rooms.  Aaron tries his hand at breeding canaries and being a caddy, but struggles to earn enough just to eat, much less pay the rent.  And his friends at the hotel — an epileptic girl named Ella (Amber Benson), a cunning older brother figure named Lester (Adrien Brody), and a fallen sophisticate named Mr. Mungo (Spalding Gray) — are falling away.  Aaron has to figure out how to navigate the difficult terrain of poverty, and fast.

One of the most interesting things about Steven Soderbergh is that — “Ocean’s” trilogy notwithstanding — he rarely seemed interested in making the same movie twice.  His career runs the gamut as he dabbles in a dizzying variety of genres: neo-noir, science fiction, medical horror, surrealism, documentary, biopic, heist caper, romantic comedy, concert film, indie drama, farce, drug epic, martial arts.  Here, early in his career, he tries his hand at the coming-of-age picture.  And he handles it quite well.  Bradford gives a wonderful performance, his eyes hinting at the quick intelligence behind Aaron’s eyes.  Of course, Aaron is still a child and makes mistakes.  The lies he uses to hide the shame of his family situation get him into trouble more often than not.  An impulsive plan of action to protect his father’s car from repossession nearly gets some people killed.

Nearly… and maybe that’s the main problem with this movie.  It deals so much with the awful circumstances of the Great Depression, yet seems afraid to fully commit to dark consequences.  The tone is just a bit too sentimental, the look of it just a bit too pretty.  The ending undermines the bitter reality that threatens Aaron constantly up until that point, and can’t help feeling false.  The movie is based on a memoir, so maybe it’s a genuine slice of serendipity.  Or maybe we all just want this young man to make it, to have all his resourcefulness and growth not be for naught.  I don’t like to criticize a film for not being dark, especially when my tastes have been gravitating towards lighter fare, but it came off a little too easy.

Nonetheless, it’s a pretty solid piece of work.  The cinematography and production design are terrific, and the supporting cast is quite good.  I’m always happy to see Spalding Gray in anything, and there are some small but nice performances by Karen Allen and Elizabeth McGovern.  It’s a very watchable movie with well-constructed scenarios and a central character you care about.  It just feels somewhat slight.  Then again, as much as I admire and am intrigued by Soderbergh, his work rarely does that something special for me.  Rating: Good (79)


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