Do you recognize the look on an adult's face when a child is telling a tall tale, elaborating a fib that grows larger by the second? Sometimes you may see it in a mother's eyes as she plays "True of False" with her son ("I'm taking your word that what you say is true really is true"). Or the same boy's teacher as he explains that he lives in a nice apartment building (instead of in a fleabag hotel) with his father, a spy. Or even the mother of one of the boy's classmmates, as she listens to the explanation of how his father is a pilot for the government. The expressions begin with hard lines, stern brows, then soften in realization that the poor child needs to conjure such tales to avoid a complete erosion of self-worth.
Aaron Kurlander (14 year old Jesse Bradford) lives with his family in Missouri in 1933, a time when the country was in the deepest trenches of the Great Depression. The Kurlanders live in said rundown hotel, filled with all sorts of downtrodden folks, including a curious fellow across the hall (Spalding Gray) who once "smoked dollar bills like cigars" in earlier, far more prosperous times. Things become so desparate that Aaron makes tomato soup out of ketchup and tap water for his father. It's a moment that tells much, the switched roles revealing Aaron's maturity and his father's (Jeroen Krabbé) lack of it. Mr. Kurlander spends his days selling wickless candles, forever speaking of a job he hopes to get with a fancy watch manufacturer. Aaron's mother (Lisa Eichorn) is chronically ill. His little brother (Cameron Boyd) is barely there before he is shipped off to relatives in another state. One less mouth to feed.
As writer/director Steven Soderbergh's KING OF THE HILL (1993) progresses, Aaron will be separated, one by one, from family, friends, mentors, and neighbors. It's a heartbreaking tale. Mrs. Kurlander is sent to a tuberculosis hospital. Mr. Kurlander indeed gets the sales job, requiring him to travel state to state, without his son. Bradford plays his scenes with Krabbé with the right amount of pathos and disbelief; how could his dad could leave him alone in the apartment for an indeterminate amount of time without money? One of the saddest scenes shows the boy cutting up magazines for pictures of food that he arranges on a plate and pretends to savor.
While Aaron is still in school, he'll observe the obscene wealth of his classmmates. The extravagance, the waste, the taking for granted is astonishing to him. One boy has a room filled with birdcages (he breeds them as a hobby) and autographed sports memorabilia. Aaron covers his poverty with the tall tales of which we spoke, not so embarrased of his social standing as interested in just getting some food that these people have in plenty. A girl (played by a very young Katherine Heigl) who likes Aaron invites him to a post-graduation party, where his multitude of lies catches up to him.
The scenario of KING OF THE HILL plays like many survival stories (EUROPA EUROPA, for one), the hero using his wits and the kindness of others, especially neighbor Letser (Adrien Brody, quite good). Lester is a older version of Aaron, with more years under his belt and savvy as to how to exploit any situation for reward. He's a rascal and a thief, but kindhearted. He's also certainly more of a father to Aaron than his real one. Aaron remains strong, but his spirit is crushed a bit more as he loses each contact, even the strange girl down the hall who wants him to come over and have hot dogs and dance with her. He finally does, learning more about the girl he previously dismissed. He selflessly spends fifty cents he desperately needs on a kitten for her.
I wish Soderbergh had made more films like KING OF THE HILL. It is a beautifully written, acted, and shot gem, so vivid in its depictions of a relentlessly bleak chapter of American history. The director brings his off-kilter sensibility to the project, most visible in scenes with Gray's character (who spends time with a live-in prostitute played by Elizabeth McGovern) to balance the inherent drama of the story; it's a privileged mix. The result is a warm, even sentimental at times movie that isn't the usual Hollywood tearjerker, or conversely a smug, irony drenched revisionist tale. We are not toyed with in the usual ways: sappy music cues, angelic lighting. Instead, Cliff Martinez' score is just disturbing enough to flavor the drama, yet never becoming overwhelmingly sad.
Soderbergh uses natural and artificial light instead to create beautiful images that could be frozen and admired as art, almost Norman Rockwell or Ansel Adams-like in their old school down home charm. Aside from a derivative scene in which Aaron beats some older boys in a game of marbles (uncharacteristically scored with upbeat music and featuring a slow-motion shot of Aaron's marbles shattering those of his opponents'), KING OF THE HILL never missteps. Well worth your time.