Overlooked & Underseen: King of the Hill (1993)
Right out of the gate, Steven Soderbergh made an impact on the film world with his first feature Sex, Lies, and Videotape (1989). That film was unlike anything else at the time and ushered in a new era of “indie” films in the 90s. Soderbergh was nominated for an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay for the film and it also won the Palme d’Or at Cannes that year. His second film, Kafka, wasn’t a huge success, but did prove that Soderbergh’s promise was not a fluke. The kid had talent.
Based on A. E. Hotchner’s 1973 memoir of the same name, King of the Hill tells the story of Aaron (Jesse Bradford), a junior high student trying to navigate through the tough reality he faces during the Depression of the 1930s. Aaron’s at a point in his life where he should only be worried about getting good grades and whether or not he’s going to be able to hear the game on radio. Instead, he’s already having to deal with adult issues, like trying to make money and wondering where his next meal is coming from.
Junior High is a cruel place. We’ve all been there and, I suspect, unless you were one of the “chosen ones”, the time you spent there wasn’t always pleasant. Even if you were one of the cool kids, you still had your own issues to deal with. Aaron is ashamed of his home life; his dad (Jeroen Krabbé) is a door-to-door salesman with a product that no one wants, his mother (Lisa Eichhorn) is consumptive, and they live in a low-budget hotel on the wrong side of town. Because of this burning shame, he tells lies. Lots and lots of lies. It’s only a matter of time before it all come crashing down on him.
Crash down it does, in the most spectacular fashion. Money is so tight, Aaron’s little brother is sent away to live with relatives. Then, his mother’s illness gets so bad she is sent back to the sanatorium to recoup. His Dad gets a better product to sell door to door, but that means his territory covers three states. He doesn’t hesitate taking the job, telling Aaron he’ll be fine living on his own. His father pays some rent and leaves money with a local diner so Aaron can eat while he’s gone.
On paper, being on your own at 13 might seem kinda good; no parents to bug you, free reign of the hotel room. You can do what you want, when you want. In reality, you’re not exactly equipped to deal with the adult issues that are going on with Aaron. It turns out, he’s about to be evicted and he’s got only a dozen dinner rolls to eat until his Dad comes back, whenever that is.
School isn’t exactly a haven, either. Aaron is the smartest kid in class, so he has all the baggage that comes along with it, not to mention all of the lies he’s been telling. During the graduation ceremony, he has to deal with the shame of not having any family there to cheer him on. He wins the top school prize, too. An honor to be sure, but the other kids don’t see it that way. He attends the graduation party of a classmate (a very young Katherine Heigl) where Aaron is humiliated as all his lies finally catch up with him. He makes a get away by escaping a top story window. The exit feels like he’s not only leaving the party, he’s also leaving behind that part of his life, for good.
Aaron isn’t quite alone in his struggle for survival. For a time, he’s got a couple of allies at the hotel. His across the hall neighbor, Mr. Mungo (Spalding Grey), and Lester (Adrian Brody), the older teen who lives down the hall. Mr. Mungo is a gentle sort of man who prefers the company of a particular call girl (Elizabeth McGovern) over actually doing anything else in life. He is in the same situation as Aaron, though, and is also about to be evicted. Mr. Mungo doesn’t have the same wherewithal that Aaron does and his solution is yet another issue the kid shouldn’t have to deal with. Lester, on the other hand, is a hustler, a survivor, and he helps out Aaron any way he can.
Starving and unable to leave the hotel room because the management will padlock him out, Aaron becomes a prisoner of it. He’s without power, water, and the thing he wants most, food. Imagine being 13, living alone, starving, with no end in sight. A harsh life for anyone, let alone a child. Parents had to make tough choices during the Depression and sometimes, the children had to grow up fast.
This film is gorgeous looking. Soderbergh seemed to juxtapose Aaron's fight for survival with beautiful images of Depression-era St. Louis. His use of light, especially, made even the worst situations actually look quite lovely. Jesse Bradford did a wonderful job as Aaron. I’m not always sold on child performances but Bradford did a fine job shouldering the entire picture. Any performance by Spalding Grey is always poignant at this point and his portrayal of Mr. Mungo was even more impactful given the manner in which Grey left us.
King of the Hill came so early in Soderbergh’s career, it’s easily one of his that gets overlooked. That’s a shame because it’s absolutely well worth a look. The film is available for purchase on Blu-ray. Criterion even gave the film a three disc treatment. Please give this one a watch, you’ll be glad you did.