Where is Dad?

Review of King on the Hill, Directed by  Steven Soderbergh


Recently, director Steven Soderbergh announced his intention to retire from filmmaking. The auteur burst onto the scene with Sex, Lies and Videotape at the Cannes Film Festival in 1989, and quickly followed that success with Kafka, which was considered a failure. Soderbergh dabbled in other small, personal films before deciding to take on bigger, commercial projects like Traffic and the Oceans series. The success of those films earned the director the commercial and artistic cred to keep making personal projects like Bubble.

While most of Soderbergh’s films wouldn’t be accurately characterized as “family films,” there is one from early in the filmmaker’s career that could be watched by older children and adults. That film is King of the Hill, Soderbergh’s third feature, which critic Leonard Maltin included it in his book “151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen” and called a “masterpiece.”

Jesse Bradford plays Aaron, a boy during in the Great Depression who lives in a hotel with his family. His father (played by Jeroen Krabbe) is a struggling salesman. No sooner is Aaron’s brother been sent away to live with relatives than his mother is ordered to a sanitarium. Aaron is left with his father, until a job opportunity takes dad on the road, leaving Aaron to take care of himself.

And fend for himself he does. King of the Hill is a portrait of a young boy trying to survive by hook or crook in the absence of any parental authority. The closest Aaron has to a surrogate parent is a troubled, lonely man (Spalding Gray) who lives across the hall. The police are represented by a boisterous cop who grabs young troublemakers by the ear. So Aaron tries to stay out of trouble while he waits—for his mom to get better, for his father to return, for any kind of good news that will reunite his family.

Aaron’s father isn’t a bad man, and the film doesn’t turn him into a villain or a caricature. We see him from Aaron’s perspective—aloof from Aaron’s day-to-day concerns as he tries to shoulder the responsibilities of caring for a wife and two sons.

To his credit, he’s determined to work during an era when jobs were hard to come by. But as he tries to find a way to negotiate the needs of different family members, he treats Aaron as a nuisance, an annoyance or merely an afterthought. Seen through Aaron’s eyes, it’s hard to know if he is a caring mentor for his son, or a distant and self-interested father. Is he destined to fail, determined to succeed or both?

Soderbergh’s portrait of the father may be intentionally confusing, but it also may be a byproduct of the story’s structure. After the story kicks into gear, the father simply isn’t around. Early in the film, the dad lands a position as a watch salesman with a multi-state territory, and he leaves. “Don’t you worry, I’ve got it all arranged,” he explains to Aaron. He’s lined up a decent meal for Aaron to have each day, and a little spending money. “I’ll be back as soon as I can because I’ll be very worried,” he tells Aaron, and in that moment, he appears to mean it.

On his own, Aaron soon learns that the provider of those promised meals is no longer employed. A female friend who invites him over for meals moves away. So Aaron becomes resourceful; that is, he learns to steal and lie. He grabs food where he can find it. He fabricates explanations for his parents’ absence.

There are no adult figures to chastise Aaron. The only grown-up he trusts (Spalding Gray) turns out to be in more desperate straits than is Aaron. Other adults are threats to the few things that provide Aaron with stability. When Aaron is told he will soon be evicted, he holes up in his room and waits for some change in his desperate circumstances. [WARNING: SPOILERS FOLLOW]

Despite its downward trajectory throughout most of its running time, “King of the Hill” isn’t only about departures and despair. It’s also about reunions. For Aaron will be reunited with his brother, and then with his father. “It’s so good to see you both,” his dad says upon seeing his sons. “I knew you could take care of yourselves.”

Indeed, Aaron can. So when his dad instructs him on the family’s next steps, and Aaron disagrees with the plan, he takes matters into his own hands, defying his father’s wishes. The film ends with a warm embrace between parent and child, but Aaron has learned that, if need be, he can make it on his own.

As parents, we want to raise children who can one day be independent. But how soon is too soon? King of the Hill is a warning, a sign of how badly things can go when children are left to take care of themselves at an age when they still need supervision. Aaron clearly gets too close to a point of great peril, even death. No responsible father would wish this on his child. That Aaron’s father subjects his child to such danger is a lesson to parents today in what not to do. That Aaron survived by his wits and managed, if only just barely, to survive, shows something about the human spirit.

So, King of the Hill has lessons for both kids and adults. It’s a good film to watch and discuss with older children. Note: King of the Hill is rated PG-13 for thematic elements.

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