King of the Hill (1993) is the third feature from Steven Soderbergh, who jumped to the head of the American independent scene when sex, lies and videotape took the Audience Award at Sundance 1989 and went on to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes before getting a wide release in suburban multiplexes. His second film, Kafka (1991), wasn’t a success but it revealed a serious filmmaker who wanted to explore different subjects and genres. King of the Hill continued that tradition in that is was yet again a complete change of style and subject matter for the director: an adaptation of the memoir by A.E. Hotchner about life as an adolescent during the Depression. It was also his first studio production, made for the fledgling Gramercy Pictures, and it gave him the biggest budget of his career. He was able to craft a rich recreation of early thirties St. Louis as seen through the eyes of a hopeful boy in an increasingly desperate situation.
Jesse Bradford is Aaron, a smart, creative, generous high school kid who spins stories to hide the fact that his family is broke and living out of a hotel, where they are behind in the rent. To stay in his high school, a well-maintained school filled with affluent kids (Aaron is “a charity case,” as one of his affluent classmates describes him), he and his kid brother Sullivan (Cameron Boyd) have to keep up the fiction that they reside in a nearby apartment house. His dad (Jeroen Krabbé) is a salesman hawking “wickless candles” that no one is buying while he waits for one of his many applications to pay off with a better job. Aaron picks up odd jobs as he can with the help of Lester (Adrian Brody in his first major role), an older kid who looks over Aaron like a big brother. Lester knows the angles and hustles his way to survival and his mentorship gives Aaron the skills and strength to survive when he’s force to take care of himself.