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The Lens: When Hollywood Met St. Louis, Take 3

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 25, 2009 - The Lens wraps its reminiscences of past St. Louis film shoots with a review of "King of the Hill."

In my last post, I crowned "King of the Hill" as the best feature film shot in St. Louis. This review from the Aug. 18, 1993, Riverfront Times provides the justification:


In summary, the St. Louis-set "King of the Hill" sounds eerily like a Depression-era "Home Alone": Precocious preteen, abandoned by mom, pop and baby bro, holes up solo in the family's 1930s hotel-room apartment, imaginatively battling the threatening adult world of repo men and rent-collecting landlords.

Heart-warming. Hilarious. Hit.

But the writer-director of "King of the Hill" is Steven Soderbergh, not John Hughes, and the film he has made is closer in spirit to his serious-minded "sex, lies, and videotape" than to "Planes, Trains & Automobiles." As Soderbergh asserted during the movie's shoot here last summer, "I feel that this is emotionally a combination of a Truffaut film and a De Sica film." Although time will ultimately determine if "King of the Hill" merits comparison with "The 400 Blows" or "Shoeshine," the film's honest portrayal of a harsh adolescence and its largely unsentimental tone make it a legitimate heir to those classics.

Based on a memoir by A.E. Hotchner, "King of the Hill" tells the story of his autobiographical surrogate, 12-year-old Aaron Kurlander (Jesse Bradford), who is compelled by difficult circumstance to graduate from childhood into a painfully adult world during the movie's course. Slowly stripped of his support system -- his younger brother (Cameron Boyd) leaves to live with relatives, his mother (Lisa Eichhorn) is forced into a sanitarium by tuberculosis, and his struggling salesman father (Jeroen Krabbe) sets off on a multiweek road trip -- Aaron is left alone in the family's shabby room. Bad soon turns to worse as arrangements to keep him supplied with food collapse and the hotel's management decides to evict. Aaron effectively becomes a prisoner, subsisting on bread and water in his sweltering cage of a room.

The grim heaviness of the plot is lightened by a surprising amount of humor in the film and especially Hotchner's book, whose amusing first-person narration makes clear that, however pathetic his state, Aaron is never in danger of succumbing to despair. Soderbergh's decision not to use voice-over -- probably a wise one -- deprives the film of that ironic perspective, requiring Jesse Bradford's performance to communicate Aaron's buoyant spirit, his intelligence and iron will, and he proves altogether remarkable. In tightening Hotchner's already slim narrative by combining characters, reducing secondary roles and deleting anecdotal tangents, Soderbergh further burdens Bradford, asking him to carry the bulk of the film on his slim but obviously strong shoulders. Fellow hotel residents such as Mr. Mungo (Spalding Gray), Lydia (Elizabeth McGovern), Mr. Sandoz (John Durbin) and Ella (Amber Benson) -- even Aaron's parents -- become more iconic figures than full characters. Aaron thus is absolutely central throughout -- not only figuratively but literally, with Soderbergh often shooting him in close-up -- and the film owes its success to Bradford's gravity and restraint, his almost preternatural confidence.

(The laserlike intensity of Soderbergh's focus on Aaron will disappoint those searching for St. Louis landmarks and faces, which are not only period-dressed and largely unrecognizable but also used exclusively for coloration and out-of-focus background to Aaron's foreground actions. Another local note: Contrary to speculation, the Hill of the movie's title is metaphoric -- and highly ironic -- and does not refer to St. Louis' Italian neighborhood.)

"King of the Hill's" ending succumbs ever so slightly to the Hollywood sentimentality that the film otherwise so studiously avoids, but even here Soderbergh allows a certain tension to remain crackling in the air. The problems evident in Aaron's uneasy relationship with his father -- unsympathetically portrayed with appropriate stiffness and emotional distance by Krabbe -- are not resolved with a simple hug, and "King of the Hill" resists pulling too strongly at our heartstrings. A smart, subtle film, "King of the Hill" will perhaps suffer financially for its brave resistance of feel-good Hollywood manipulation, but it's a far better film for its honesty.

The Lens is the blog of Cinema St. Louis, hosted by the Beacon.