King of the Hill (1993): Soderbergh’s Depression-Era Tale, Starring Jesse Bradford and Jeroen Krabbe

Soderbergh’s third outing, “King of the Hill,” an adaptation of A.E. Hotchner’s Depression memoir of his childhood in St. Louis, was a return to form after the disappointment of “Kafka, though few people saw the film in theaters.

World-premiering at the Cannes Film Festival (In Competition), “King of the Hill” was released in the U.S. by Universal’s indie boutique, Gramercy.

Set circa 1933. Hotchner’s 1972 autobiography, depicts the life of one family, the Kurlanders, living in the seedy Empire Hotel. To save some money in these dire times, the Kurlanders are forced to send away their younger son, Sullivan (Cameron Boyd), to reside with relatives.

When the finances of the Kurlanders reach their limit, and Mrs. Kurlander’s (Lisa Eichhorn) poor health deteriorates, she is sent to a sanitarium. Later, her salesman husband (Jeroen Krabbe) must leave town for a job. As a result, their other son, Aaron, is left alone in a spooky transient hotel that evokes Southern Gothic tradition.

This coming-of-age story revolves around a bright 12-year-old, Aaron Kurlander (Jesse Bradford), who perseveres in the face of danger. To elevate his status, as most of his classmates are from the upper or upper-middle-class, Aaron begins inventing tall tales about his family that he himself finds hard to believe.

With plenty of time in his hands, the ever-curious boy observes with fascination the strange people around him, soon finding himself entangled in their problems and adventures.

They form an assortment of eccentric people. Ella (Amber Benson) is a nervous bespectacled girl who suffers from epilepsy. Mr. Mungo (Spalding Gray) is an alcoholic who socializes with the prostitute Lydia (Elizabeth McGovern), while the bellboy (Joseph Chrest) keeps a watchful eye on everyone. The then unknown actor Adrien Brody gives an outstanding performance as a young Jewish fellow who helps Aaron through some of his difficult times.

As a survival study of a kid who relies on his intuition and street smarts, Aaron recalls the young protagonists of Mark Twain and Charles Dickens.

The movie was intended as a tribute to the resilient and indomitable spirit of many Jews who have fallen on hard times during the Depression, but it bears universal tones.

A technically assured, well-acted film, “King of the Hill” displayed Soderbergh’s penchant for realistic portraiture of intimate dramas, but it is less effective in creating an authentically Jewish milieu.