Dramas, or even tragic-comedies, for kids (or could appeal to kids) that are good are hard to find. Sometimes you get good one like Stand by Me, or you can venture to the art-house for the 'quintessential' The 400 Blows. But in the scope of 'coming-of-age' stories that can appeal to adults and kids there is a shortlist of great ones and King of the Hill is one of them. Why Steven Soderbergh chose this as his follow-up to Kafka, which was already a bizarre follow-up to Sex, Lies & Videotape, you'd have to ask him; from biographies I've read it actually was a very personal story for Soderbergh to tell, despite it being in 1933 depression-era St. Louis and involving a real person that wasn't him, A.E. Hotchner (now a biographer). Apparently Soderbergh, like the 14 year old Aaron Kurtlander, spent a lot of time alone as a kid, having to go at things his own way, and be smart about stuff in rural Louisiana.
This doesn't mean one has to have a cursory knowledge of Soderbergh's life story to like or love King of the Hill. Far from it. This is the director's Charles Dickens movie, and it's something that warms the heart after going through the trenches of struggle. Young Aaron is just another kid in a class in 1933, surrounded by kids who are mostly, surprisingly, better off than him, both monetarily (young Katherine Heigl plays one) and physically (the fat kid, ah what a lot to steal food from). He also lives with his mother, father and brother, but in the first half of the story one by one they each drift away, for reasonable reasons: the brother is sent away to relatives since the parents don't have enough money to take care of them both; the mother is sent away to a sanitarium for consumption (or another reason we might not be told of, though consumption makes it more innocent if not less convenient); the father is sent away as he has to get more work as a traveling salesman across the midwest, without taking poor Aaron.
|Meanwhile, Aaron has to put up with the father of 'Pal' from Uncle Buck|
Soderbergh gets the best out of his performers, especially Jessie Bradford, who sometimes has a look on his face like "are YOU kidding me" but with a demeanor that is calm and trying to figure things out. I like seeing smart characters even if they're kids; Aaron isn't smart like a 'smart-alek' ala Culkin characters from the 90's. He has to be resourceful almost by lack of choice. He'd much rather play marbles or run around and play with his brother, but with a mostly lack of friends his age and without much income (he tries to breed birds based on a tip from a classmate but all turn out to be girl birds worth only 50 cents) he has to scrounge for money and food, and Bradford is able to pick up on the desperation but also the intelligence and project it for the audience. We feel for him because he's a genuinely good person and has really bad luck thrown upon him, one after another, and we root for him even in the darkest moments. It is another of those stories out of the depression: only the Joads seem to have it worse off.
And I also loved how Soderbergh actually made the eventual happy ending, or as close as it could be, much more deserved than usual. While one might think that it at the end doesn't go quite bleak enough, this also isn't a neo-realist film either. It's a slickly made Hollywood production, albeit on the low-budget scale, and it's more in how Soderbergh presents these images that makes them stick as being so dark and doom-like. It's also a little contradictory that it should be so sad a story for a lot of it as it's a brightly colored film, given a yellow filter through the exteriors and some of the interior hotel scenes. It has the air of a nostalgia for something that happened, it was what it was, and a person grew through it. And yet there are scenes and moments that speak to something else in the narrative.
What I mean is that despite how good things do turn out in the end (relatively and with some minor comedy involving the bellboy and a cop), I took away from the Soderbergh's tale that people can be very mixed when it comes to what they do or what they do for others. As Aaron's father is about to leave and gets into his car, he tries to give Aaron a self-esteem booster by telling him of how when he was a baby he kept on crying for some food or attention, and then his father poured a bowl of water over his head. Then, after this, baby Aaron didn't cry anymore when he saw that water near him like that. And this is meant to inspire him for how intelligent he is! The miracle in King of the Hill is how well Aaron turns out with all of the disarray and poverty and depression and annoying kids and suicide around him, with even the helpful people turning out to be crooks sometimes, and how he manages to take us along in the dark in order to get to the light.
It's perhaps the 'best' film of the director's career, the one that contradicts Soderbergh's own words that he's been "interested in form, not story", as it's a very carefully crafted, lovingly human tale of adversity and triumph.