King of the Hill (1993)
“King of the Hill” is exactly the sort of picture a rising young filmmaker tackles for their third feature. In 1993, Steven Soderbergh had enjoyed his breakout with “Sex, Lies, and Videotape,” followed by the more esoteric “Kafka.” For his third go-round, he went for a classic coming-of-age story about a boy abandoned during the Great Depression.
These sorts of tales are so common they have gotten their own literary designation: “Bildungsroman,” named for fairy tales in which a young person goes out into the world, encounters hardship and seeks to define themselves through their experiences. Though in young Aaron Kurlander’s story, much of his journey occurs within the confines of the crumbling San Francisco hotel where he lives.
At first, it’s the whole family crammed into that single room — German immigrant father (Jeroen Krabbe), kind mother wracked by consumption (a luminescent Lisa Eichhorn) and scrappy, trouble-making younger brother Sullivan (Cameron Boyd). They’re poor, along with everyone else in the Empire Hotel, where the mercenary bellboy Ben (Joe Chrest) acts as thuggish enforcer, locking people out of their rooms if they get too far behind on their bill.
But at least they were together. Father is fitfully employed as a salesman but is a dreamer/schemer who always has a plan up his sleeve about finding a better gig. They decide to send Sullivan off to live with an uncle to save a dollar a week in costs. Then mother’s tuberculosis flares up and she’s packed off to the sanitarium.
Dad actually manages to land the job he boasted about, selling watches for the Hamilton Watch Company, but it forces him to leave Aaron (who’s about 12) alone for the summer in the apartment. He gives the hotel manager $17 (against a debt 10 times that) to hold him off and arranges for one meal a day at a local diner. But Ben the bellboy has been tasked with strong-arming all the riff-raff out in favor of dance hall girls, and the diner worker was pulling a scam. So Aaron is left with an armful of dinner rolls and his instincts to make it through.
Soderbergh’s wonderful screenplay, which is based on a memoir by writer A.E. Hotchner, is filled with all sorts of authentic little details about life back in 1933. The people speak in the lingo of the times. Visually, the film is a sumptuous representation of the era, from the Model T Fords to the leather straps the children use to carry their books to school. Even the fat, corrupt policeman, who lives to pinch little kids’ ears, wears a natty Clark Gable mustache.
Aaron is a bright boy and even receives the top award at his school for the student who best represents the ideals of academia and good character. He has the former in spades but has a penchant for lying. Asked to write an essay about his personal hero, he fabricates a tale of a personal friendship with aviator Charles Lindbergh. His supportive teacher (Karen Allen) sees it as fanciful initiative but is more disturbed to learn Aaron has been lying about where he lives so he can attend the “rich kids” school district. She doesn’t squeal on him, though.
Adrien Brody has a nice role as Lester, an older kid down the hall whom Aaron idolizes. His street smarts trump Aaron’s book smarts and he’s constantly helping the kid out of scrapes or into ones — like picking the lock on the hotel storeroom where Ben has stashed all the belongings of former residents who got the boot. Lester eventually gets arrested for selling stolen hooch to the homeless people (they were called bums back then) living in the Hooverville catty-corner from the hotel.
One quiet, small moment with a lot of power is when Aaron barges into Lester’s apartment looking for him. Lester never lets anyone in, protesting that his sick mother needs her rest, but it turns out Lester invented her to conceal the sad, squalid little life he actually lives.
A young Katherine Heigl has a small role as a wealthy girl who spies Aaron stealing food off another kid’s plate at school and invites him to dinner with her family. Aaron is embarrassed when, at a big birthday party right before that dinner, his trail of lies catch up with him. He runs off, even leaving behind his school award medal, and holes up in his room, hiding from Ben and his box full of locks.
Interestingly, the film depicts most people in Aaron’s community as sympathetic and helpful. Even the hotel manager who wants to give him the boot does so at the behest of the bank that owns the property. Ben and the abusive cop are the only true villainous figures in the movie. Instead, Aaron self-ostracizes himself through his shame at his lowly circumstances and his many distortions of the truth.
I think the movie really shines in its portrayal of a tentative, furtive romance between Aaron and Ella, a slightly older girl who lives on the same floor and never seems to leave their apartment. She’s supposed to be unattractive and awkward, though in the finest cinematic tradition, the girl (played by Amber Benson) is actually gloriously cute, simply hidden behind glasses and an unbecoming hairstyle.
Aaron is at first put off by Ella’s attentions, stopping him in the hallway to talk and inviting him over for a hot dog. He is at that age where boys begin to notice the female allure, but they’re still held back by their little-kid notions of girls as The Enemy. He is horrified when she has an epileptic seizure while they’re dancing and he beats a hasty retreat. But Aaron, to his credit, returns again to see her.
A few other elements don’t quite get baked into the pie. There’s an on-again, off-again exchange with Mr. Mungo, the patrician gent who loves across the hallway. Played by writer Spalding Gray, Mungo is a formerly rich man brought low by the Crash, now content to eke out his last few dollars and his last few days as a wastrel prince lording it over the poor man’s hostel. He dresses elegantly and keeps a prostitute (Elizabeth McGovern) around as a bored retainer — her job, aside from some assumed sex we never see, is apparently to annoy and belittle him.
Ultimately, the physical journey in “King of the Hill” is rather small. Mr. Kurlander dreams of getting a better job so he can move his family out of the Empire Hotel and across the city to the Carlton Court Apartments, and in the end he does. It’s a nice, though hardly lavish, abode in a better neighborhood. The Carlton is weightier in its significance than its trappings, though, as Aaron has grown and learned immeasurably in his time alone.
“King of the Hill,” in tone and theme, reminds me very much of “Empire of the Sun,” an unheralded film from 1987 that remains my favorite directed by Steven Spielberg. The story is smaller in scope, as there is no World War in the backdrop, but the import approaches.