Steven Soderbergh continues to challenge audience expectations with his third film, "King of the Hill," which bears no resemblance whatsoever to "sex, lies and videotape" or "Kafka."
Adapting writer A.E. Hotchner's memoirs, Soderbergh is credited here with direction, script and editing, serving up a heartfelt look at the Depression, as seen through the eyes of a resourceful 12-year-old boy.
Despite his restricted budget, the filmmaker has managed to land some familiar faces for his supporting cast (Elizabeth McGovern as a hooker, Karen Allen as a school teacher) and his attention to period detail is admirable. (And remember, the film may take place 60 years ago, but Soderbergh was born only 30 years ago.)
Set in St. Louis in 1933, "King of the Hill" tells the story of young Aaron Kurlander (played terrifically by Jesse Bradford), who lives with his parents (Jeroen Krabbe, Lisa Eichhorn) and younger brother (Cameron Boyd) in a fleabag hotel, where they are suffering hard times. Dad is out of work and mom has consumption.
Reluctantly, the family begins to fray as the younger son is shipped off to stay with relatives. Then, mother goes to a sanitarium to recover. And it isn't long before Dad gets a sales job that takes him on the road.
Though he's been faring for himself for quite some time already, Aaron is really on his own now. And though he gets occasional assistance from a street-wise teenage pal, various eccentric neighbors and a few fair-weather friends at school, Aaron has to learn to fend for himself.
The weakest element here is the parents' apparent lack of concern over their son living alone in a hotel infested with human vermin. But the focus is on the lad's will to survive and the ways he manages to do this, without adult guidance, and it's a compelling story by any measure.
"King of the Hill" is structured in episodic form, with comic, tragic and melodramatic events all taking their turn. But Soderbergh brings them together as a whole with wit and intelligence, a wry sense of humor and some excellent performances.
The result is a film that stacks up well in a year filled with stellar movies and a wide array of impressive children's performances. And it certainly makes me look forward to whatever Soderbergh may be up to next.
"King of the Hill" is rated PG-13 for violence, a few profanities and some vulgarity.