King of the Hill

Be a mensch
Steven Soderbergh
Jesse Bradford, Jeroen Krabbe, Adrien Brody, Karen Allen, Amber Benson
The Setup: 
Affecting kid's-eye view of the depression.

This was my pick for movie night with my friend, both because I wanted to see it again and because I knew he would respond to it. This was Soderbergh's third movie after his breakout Sex, Lies and Videotape, during the period where it kind of looked like he might just fade into obscurity. It's well done and very good but not great, but it tells a very affecting, low-key true story that is both about the depression and coming of age.

Jesse Bradford, who grew up to star in Bring It On and Swimfan, and looks poised for further success, stars as Aaron Kurlander, this kid we meet in 1930s St. Louis. He lives with his German father and American [I guess?] mother and younger brother Sullivan. They live in this residence hotel that also seems to serve as a haven for prostitutes, which Aaron is a little ashamed of. We find out from the first scene onward that Aaron is the kind of kid who some people might say has an overactive imagination and some others might say is a liar. His teacher, charmingly played by Karen Allen, gazes lovingly at him as he delivers a report on his close friendship with Charles Lindbergh, charmed by his imagination and impressed by his writing.

The movie had barely begin before little Sullivan is shipped off to stay with relatives so the family can save a dollar a day. More small but character-setting incidents follow. Aaron beats these other kids with his prowess at marbles. He accepts a ride home from the mother of the rich girl [played a young and already very charming Katherine Heigl], who sees "that salesman" sitting on a stoop, defeated. The mother says she can't understand why he would sell "candles you can't even light." Well, that salesman is Aaron's father, who he pretends not to recognize. He lies and tells the other family that his parents are wealthy. Then one day he comes home and finds out that his mother is going to have to return to the sanitarium, here used in the sense of "hospital," because she has a recurring illness. So now it's just him and his father.

Other incidents occur. There is a man in one of the rooms who is an artist. Aaron sees him as he gets locked out of his apartment for being unable to pay. Spalding Gray plays a nice man who lives across the hall and entertains a prostitute, played by Elizabeth McGovern. Aaron tries to breed finches and sell the chicks for $3 each, but the store owner only pays for females, and says—amazingly—these are all males. I didn't get the first time that thy were cheating Aaron. Adrien Brody, here before he's even big enough to appear in the main credits, plays a smart older boy who befriends Aaron and shows him some of the less-than-honest tricks he's picked up in his adventures. Amber Benson, who later went on to become Williow's girlfriend Tara on Buffy, is here as a shy younger girl with glasses who takes a shine to the slightly creeped-out Aaron. Slowly, more and more locks are beginning to appear on the doors to rooms.

One day, Aaron comes home and his father tells him that he got a job selling watches—in other states. This will leave Aaron alone, but the father, who is a bit of a scumbag, has given two watches to a guy at this restaurant in exchange for giving Aaron a full dinner every evening. The scene in which the father leaves is one of the central scenes of the film: he tells a story about how smart Aaron is, saying that when Aaron was an infant and would cry, the father poured a glass of water on him, and he stopped crying, From that time on, all he had to do was raise a glass of water and the kid would start crying. This is shot straight-on looking at Aaron, and I interpret it as that moment in several kids' lives when they first realize that their father is just an asshole. Of course, it will take a bit longer for this to bubble up to Aaron's consciousness. In the meantime, he finds that the guy who was supposed to give him a meal at night was like a cook or someone, "had a lot of arrangements with a lot of people"—and has been fired. Aaron spends all the money he has—and is able to buy 25 dinner rolls.

Soon more and more locks are appearing on doors, and the landlord tells Aaron that he must move out—again his father's arrangements are not enough. From that time on Aaron has to sneak in and out of his apartment. He receives a special award at graduation from his school and is invited to a party at the rich girls' house, where it soon becomes apparent to everyone that he's lying about having money. He also overhears people talking about him as a "charity case." The guy across the hall kills himself. His older friend is arrested. He sees them tearing down the shanty town, and catches a glimpse of a man who used to live right down the hall, apparently driven insane by privation. He takes the bus out to see his mother at the institution, but she can't help, and he doesn't want to disturb her.

At the climax of the movie, Aaron is starving, and finally allows himself to turn on his father, if only symbolically. He finds the "candles you can't even light" under the bed and smashes them all, shouting "bastard!" Soon the movie resolves in a way that takes care of all the little loose ends, but we can tell that something has changed, and that something was a major milestone in Aaron's movement toward maturity. I believe it is that moment at which he finally allows himself to become furious at his father, and to blame him for the things he has done, because when this happens Aaron separates himself from his father, instead of existing a little sub-being, wholly dependent on him.

It's a good, nice, moving little low-key movie. Jesse Bradford delivers an amazingly confident, centered and cohesive performance for a 14-year-old, and one watch of this is virtually certain to interest you in following his career to see how he turned out. He's also—and I mean this in a totally non-molester way—just a beautiful little kid. Everyone is really good, especially Karen Allen and Adrien Brody, and the movie does a good job of evoking this time in history through a kid's eyes. I really liked how the Depression just seemed to slowly creep closer and closer, moving along outside and finally coming into the hotel and onto Aaron's floor, and we see what Aaron sees, knowing what it means even when he doesn't.

My only complaint would be that maybe the ending is a bit too pat, but after all the suffering we've gone through, it's not entirely unwelcome, and it is handled in such a way that makes it seem somewhat realistic, and carries through the themes of the movie. Anyway, a very nice, bittersweet coming-of-age movie about the depression, for those who wish to seek it out.

Should you watch it: 

Yes. This is also a great thing to watch with parents and grandparents on holidays or whatnot.