King of the Hill (1993)
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King of the Hill seems to be one of Steven Soderbergh's lesser known films and it deserves a lot better. I had expectations at a certain level since it's Soderbergh but this movie blew them out of the water. King of the Hill is charming, it's cute, it's sad and it seems totally genuine. It's not the first time I've seen movies about kids during the Great Depression but this is probably one of the finest ones I've ever seen.
The story is based off of A. E. Hotchner's experiences during the Great Depression in the 1930's. Imagine being a kid during this time and your parents are gone for whatever reason, leaving you totally on your own in a hotel with close to no money. I can't even fathom going through something like that as a kid. That just means a lot of growing up real quick when really a kid that age should just be thinking about being a kid.
Aaron Kurlander (Jesse Bradford) is a regular kid who's family is struggling to make ends meet. His dad played by Jeroen Krabbé is a struggling salesman of German origin while his mother (Lisa Eichhorn) has a history of illness and has to be sent to a sanitarium. Aaron also has a little brother but because of his parents' finances, they send him to stay with an uncle until they can get back on their feet. It's all really grim for just a kid but the movie avoids becoming a simple sob story.
This is a very well casted movie with Soderbergh getting nice performances out of everyone. Jesse Bradford makes the perfect likeable kid and Cameron Boyd as his little brother Sullivan is cute as a button. I really liked Jeroen Krabbé as the father as well. Mr. Kurlander does his best to protect his kids from worrying about their money situation but comes off as overly positive which is just as bad as being overly negative. Aaron still ends up worrying and has to take extreme measures to ensure his own survival.
Not only does Aaron have to worry about money, but everything else about being a kid his age. He's got to hide his situation from kids at his school and let's not forget that he has to find his way around girls too. He's smart but he also has a slew of interesting characters around him who can give him a helping hand, when they can of course. He's got some rotten luck though when it comes to getting his hands on some food. Something always gets in the way.
The mise en scène is well put together as a whole. Costumes, props and sets all come together to effectively portray the Depression era. There's a certain kind of nostalgia that's felt when you see all of this put together which is really nice. Soderbergh and his team have done a great job at piecing this time period together, that's for sure.
Additionally, King of the Hill is really well filmed. Soderbergh isn't afraid to put his camera in cool places and keep things visually interesting. My favourite was dangling a camera during an escape scene. The only moment I thought needed more work was an action sequence with a car that got a bit overly hectic and wasn't well captured. That's the only blip in an otherwise masterfully filmed movie.
All in all, King of the Hill really surprised me for how good it was. It's a roller coaster that got me good. I loved the story, the wonderful characters and the production design. It's very rare to go wrong with a Soderbergh movie and King of the Hill is just another example of that. Without a doubt it deserves way more recognition.
I was very pleasantly surprised - I think it's the warmest movie Soderbergh has ever directed. An underappreciated gem which goes to show how versatile he really is.
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