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‘King of the Hill’ (PG-13)

By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
September 10, 1993

In Steven Soderbergh's languid "King of the Hill," 12-year-old Aaron Kurlander (Jesse Bradford) is home alone, but his plight is hardly comedic.

It's 1933 and outside the cheap St. Louis hotel where the Kurlander family is living, there are dusty little Hoovervilles for those who can no longer make the rent. Poverty buffets the Kurlanders and soon scatters them: Little brother Sullivan (Cameron Boyd) is sent off to an uncle, tubercular Mom (Lisa Eichhorn) goes to the sanatorium, and watch-peddling Dad (Jeroen Krabbe) hits the road. This leaves Aaron to fend for himself, a particularly daunting challenge because if he didn't have bad luck, Aaron wouldn't have any luck at all.

Based on A.E. Hotchner's memoir of his Depression-era childhood, "King of the Hill" is a testimonial to self-reliance and resourcefulness, not unlike Steven Spielberg's "Empire of the Sun," but without any similar level of action or despair. The slow-paced "King of the Hill" is a feel-good fable in which it's difficult to work up any worry over a boy with clearly unsinkable spirits.

At the start, Aaron is shown to be a charming liar, his patently absurd deceits hiding his circumstances from much-better-off fellow students and a concerned teacher (Karen Allen). A marbles shark who is also the hardest worker and best student in his class, Aaron constructs fantasies of wealth and family while trying to offset real hunger with ketchup soup and pilfered school lunches ("Always steal from fat kids, never steal dessert," he advises Sullivan). A Boy Scout at heart, Aaron is kind and giving and as enterprising as circumstances allow: He tries to breed canaries but can come up only with non-chirping and therefore worthless females.

Things fall apart when Aaron's father leaves and he must fend for himself, suddenly penniless and facing a lockout by hotel management over unpaid rent. At one point, Aaron imagines a meal from color pictures of food cut from magazines, a diet that Charlie Chaplin's Little Tramp would appreciate. Despite living on bread, Aaron never seems in danger of starving and he floats through his travails aided by the kindness of neighbors as down on their luck as he is. There's the alcoholic gentleman, Mr. Mungo (Spalding Gray), and his droll callgirl friend Lydia (Elizabeth McGovern) and the delinquent juvenile Lester (Adrien Brody). For mild opposition, there are inept bad guys like the bullying Patrolman Burns (John McConnell) and bellhop and bearer of changed locks Billy (Chris Samples).

A gentle drama, "King of the Hill" is an elegy to tough but clearly more innocent times, like "Barton Fink" without edge (even a suicide is played subtly, off screen). Cinematographer Elliot Davis bathes everything in suffused colors, and even at its dusty best (in the hotel scenes), the film feels sunlit, right down to the family's happy reunification in a new home.

As the indomitable Aaron, Jesse Bradford is properly assured, hardly surprising since he's been a screen son to Harrison Ford, Robert De Niro and James Woods. Because he must carry the film, Bradford's fortunate it's not a heavy load.

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