BRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM reports from the Wellington Film Society. This week: the waning thirties.

I FIND Steven Soderbergh a fascinating director to watch – he’s either wildly overrated (sex, lies and videotape, Out of Sight, Erin Brockovich) or wildly underrated (The Limey, Solaris, Schizopolis). He’s one of the most eclectic Hollywood directors too, experimenting with digital cameras at the same time he’s making a big budget blockbuster. King of the Hill is Soderbergh’s third feature film (the first two being sex, lies and videotape which essentially made his career, and the second Kafka). King of the Hill fits into the underrated category, a sweet but hard-edged film looking at a young boy growing up in the Depression.

Based on the memoirs of A.E. Hotchner, the film focuses on a young boy Aaron Kurlander (played pitch perfectly by a young Jesse Bradford) dealing by himself the struggles of the Depression. His mother is in a sanatorium for tuberculosis, his Dad has to travel in order to get any chance of work, and his brother is sent away because it’ll be cheaper otherwise.

The film evokes 1933 St. Louis well (the attention to detail seemed really good), and the script veers that thin line between tragedy and comedy well – it felt pretty authentic both in terms of its milieu, but also in its depiction of childhood. Soderbergh focuses on the little moments, the moments that can seem just as momentous to a child (an epileptic fit, the canaries) as the “big” events in life (of which there clearly a few of in this film). It was filmed in highly faded tones, and was also acted well by a very good cast (featuring a young Katherine Heigl and Adrien Brody too).

After watching this film, it’s easy to realise how rarely Hollywood actually shows the struggles of poor people – outside of recent-ish movies like Dumb and Dumber (which I think is quite a subversive film, but don’t get me started on it), seldom are poor people even hinted at. This isn’t meant to be a Marxist rant, but wealth has always been a given in most Hollywood characters’ lives, that when there is a story looking at poverty it comes as quite a jolt. I’m sure most of the audience were rooting for Aaron, such as during the car driving scene where if he had crashed the audience knew that he wouldn’t simply get into trouble (as it would usually be played out in typical films), he might also be destroying one of his father’s last chances of making any money. Of course this paragraph is a total generalisation too – the Depression has occasionally featured (perhaps that’s the only time period where it’s fine to show poor people, outside of the po’ black people in the ghetto). And of course, this film too ends with the American Dream intact. But there is a hard edge throughout, and a very compelling portrayal of a traumatic childhood.