Soderbergh Marathon: King of the Hill (1993)

Steven Soderbergh's career remains one of the most diverse of any filmmaker currently working. Debuting with the Sundance darling Sex, Lies, and Videotape in 1989, he has succeeded in both the mainstream and indie arenas. The Ocean's trilogy (especially the first one) and Erin Brockovich have gained both popular acclaim and critical accolades, which is no easy feat. Along with this box-office success, he's made art films like Bubble and Schizpolis that are a long way from multiplex material. Resting in the middle are classics like Traffic and Out of Sight that combine the two segments into a remarkable final product. I've seen most of his memorable films, but there are still plenty of movies that have escaped my notice. For my first marathon covering a specific director, I'm ready to fill in the gaps in my Soderbergh background. My first choice is 1993's King of the Hill, which actually takes place in my hometown of St. Louis.

What's this story about?
Aaron Kurlander (Jesse Bradford) is a young boy living with his family in a run-down hotel room in Depression-era St. Louis. He's about to graduate from eighth grade and is very intelligent, but life has grown hard for his family. His mom is sick, his brother has to go and live with relatives, and his unreliable father goes away as a traveling salesman. Living alone with the leftover denizens on the hotel's third floor, Aaron struggles to survive while trying to keep his normal life moving. There's always a new opportunity around the corner, but there's no guarantee any attempts will work in this rough time in our country's history.

Does this film show more of "indie Soderbergh" or "mainstream Soderbergh"?
Although it's not one of his well-known films, King of the Hill falls more into the mainstream side of Soderbergh's career. It's not a flashy production but offers a straightforward story that should interest pretty much anyone if they give it a chance. This is only his third feature film, but it already shows a confidence that will only grow by the end of the '90s. The pace is brisk and doesn't overstay its welcome at a quick 103 minutes. Presented largely from the perspective of an adolescent boy, the camera rarely strays from his viewpoint. Soderbergh has a clear vision that's shown in the attractive set design, the believable characters, and the personal look at the difficulties of the Great Depression.

What are the key themes of this film?
Based on the memoir by A.E. Hotchner, the story presents the difficulties faced by a family who would normally be middle-class but has been driven to the bottom. The Kurlanders are weeks away from living in the Hooverville tents and scrounging for food. Aaron still attends a top-notch public school with the rich kids unaffected by the Depression and creates inspired lies to hide his situation. When a pretty classmate (a young Katherine Heigl) shows interest in him, the stories become more elaborate. Even the hotel bellboy and beat cop look down upon Aaron and other families in a similar boat. It brings out the worst in some people, but there are exceptions to the rule. Aaron's teacher Miss Mathey (an excellent Karen Allen) finds a subtle way to help the bright kid without making him feel like a charity case. There are plenty of other sources for that behavior, especially when his lies are exposed.

Are the characters believable and fully drawn?
One of the best parts is the extensive cast of characters who join Aaron's story. Adrien Brody brings the right level of charm to Lester, a older buddy from down the hall who genuinely supports him. Amber Benson (Tara from Buffy the Vampire Slayer) is interesting as a shy girl from the hotel who strikes up a friendship with Aaron. There's also a fairly short but excellent appearance from Spalding Gray as Mr. Mungo, a once-rich guy trying to act like he's still a high roller. All of these characters are written as full-fledged characters despite their limited screen time, which brings great depth to the overall story. Even the villainous bellboy has the type of slimy demeanor that you'd expect to see in this location.

What are some of the most memorable scenes?
Although it has a linear narrative, this story is more of an episodic collection of moments than your typical structure. With each departure of a family member or friend, Aaron's life grows more difficult, but he strives for a way to survive. One of the best sequences shows him holed up in their hotel room refusing to leave to avoid losing their possessions. Down to his last dinner roll, Aaron goes through a living hell while trying to stay alive. A less dire moment shows him and Lester trying to move his dad's car but failing to think about the fact that Aaron's feet won't reach the brake pedals. He takes a scary ride through the busy streets of St. Louis that's dangerous but never feels threatening. Another memorable scene is a surprising moment of violence that surprises both Aaron and the audience. The action is understandable and embodies the hopelessness felt by many during the Depression.

How does this movie fall within Soderbergh's career?
King of the Hill has broad appeal, but it was a major flop on its original release. The budget was fairly low at eight million dollars but didn't find much of an audience. Since it's not really a daring indie film in the early '90s sense, audiences looking for another Sex, Lies, and Videotape were likely disappointed. Viewed from the perspective of Soderbergh's career today, this remains one of his most emotionally affecting films. It has a nostalgia for the 1930s and the innocence of childhood while showing the difficulties of that time period. This is a tricky combination that might confuse some viewers, but it makes the story more complex than it might seem. It's a period piece the still connects to our time, especially given the financial woes currently facing our country. We haven't reached this level yet, but individuals are facing many of the same issues as Aaron today.