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Growing Up In Hard Times

June 2024
1min read

King of the Hill

directed by Steven Soderbergh, Gramercy Pictures, 109 mins., $95.98 . CODE: BAT-15

Based on a memoir by A. E. Hotchner, this intimate epic of a resourceful boy coping with hard times is made up of vignettes, many of them amusing, whose cumulative effect is powerful and, indeed, genuinely scary. The threat is poverty, and it haunts everyone in the Empire, a scuffed and battered St. Louis hotel whose inhabitants are hanging on through slow, hot, empty days at the very bottom of the Depression. Aaron Kurlander, the movie’s twelve-year-old hero, appealingly played by Jesse Bradford, sees his younger brother sent off to live with relatives because it will save the family a dollar a week. Then tuberculosis puts his mother in a sanatorium, his father gets an eagerly sought job selling for the Hamilton watch company—but, alas, in another state—and suddenly Aaron is alone. He watches, grave and alert, as the hard-pressed people around him struggle not only to survive but to preserve the rudiments of a middle-class gentility that is as important to them as nourishment itself. Against them is the sad implacability of the era, incarnated in the thuggish bellhop who patrols the dark halls, ready to seize the effects of those who fall too far behind in the rent and to lock them out of their rooms. Aaron hangs on—albeit just barely—until his family is happily reunited in the unimaginable prosperity of a WPA job. But along the way his trials become an affecting saga of adaptability and everyday courage—and, for any parent who is so inclined, a powerful way to teach your child the value of a dollar.

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