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Have you ever seen a movie and you are left with a feeling that you couldn’t put your finger on? You weren’t laughing, crying, or enthused from the film’s energy, and you weren’t left bewildered by shocking plot twist.
One film that might leave you with that undefinable feeling is director Steven Soderbergh’s adaptation of A. E. Hotchner’s boyhood memoir, King of the Hill. For the unfamiliar, Picturebox Films aptly describes the plot in their synopsis of the film: It’s a “1930s Depression-era film set in a run down motel. A young boy battles to survive when his mother is sent to a sanitarium and his father works as a traveling salesman.”
Janet Maslin attempts to explain the feeling the film gives you in her review for The New York Times. She describes it as “the way it felt to have that rug pulled out from underneath one without warning.” Indeed. While most period pieces recreate the time with what Maslin says is a “[concentration] on period details: old cars, quaint costumes, dusty rugs on boarding-house floors,” King of the Hill is different. It focuses on the feelings of the characters during the hard time of the depression, which gives audiences something deeper to connect to. And connecting to the feeling rather than visual nostalgia works as a way to put you in the mindset of the main character Aaron, played by Jesse Bradford.
While most kids remain somewhat naive to the struggles of the world, children growing up in the depression were different. They carried burdens of adults and none more so than Aaron. At just 12 years old, he’s forced to completely provide for himself. He lives in a hotel room on his own and frequently goes hungry. During one scene in particular, Aaron is so hungry that he cuts out images of food from magazines and proceeds to eat them. Without seeing it, the scene might seem humorous, but it’s truly heartbreaking.
In order to create balance between the hardships and more emotional scenes, Soderbergh also gives occasional glimpses into Aaron’s more boyish activities like playing marbles. It’s during these brief points that you see his childlike characteristics. However, you’re quickly brought back to his hard reality, as he has to lie, steal, and sneak to survive and continue to go to school.
Roger Ebert gave it 4/4 and said that it was Soderbergh’s best film to date. He said that “despite the absence of Aaron’s family for much of the picture, it’s about the support a family can give—even, if it’s believed in, when it isn’t there.”
Defying expectation as Soderbergh usually does, King of the Hill is no exception. It’s an emotional spin on a coming-of-age theme. Although you might not be able to put your finger on describing how it happens, this film will touch you. You’ll feel sadness and empathy, happiness and relief. To say the least, it’s moving, and a film that’s certainly worth your time.