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Quirky Drama of 1930s Childhood

`King of the Hill' has a kid at its center, but its director says it wasn't really made for children

STEVEN SODERBERGH'S return to the Cannes Film Festival was more low-key than it might have been.

He won the festival's grand prize in 1988 with "sex, lies, and videotape," which went on to great box-office success. But his next picture - the eccentric thriller "Kafka," with Jeremy Irons - never caught on with audiences and dampened expectations that his career would continue to soar without a hitch.

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Hoping to recapture his early magic, Soderbergh arrived at Cannes this year with "King of the Hill," a quirky comedy-drama with a 12-year-old hero and an offbeat perspective on family life during the Depression years. It won no awards and sparked no fireworks in the tradition of Soderbergh's debut film, but many festivalgoers found it genial and absorbing. It's now opening in American theaters.

"King of the Hill" is based on memoirs by A.E. Hotchner, who grew up during the 1930s in a St. Louis family that faced more than its share of economic and emotional challenges.

The movie's main character, Aaron, is a lively boy with affectionate parents and decent prospects for the future - until hard times begin tearing the household apart, removing each family member from the home until Aaron finds himself surprisingly and alarmingly alone. Fending for himself in a third-floor room of the extraordinarily seedy Empire Hotel, he learns more about human nature than many people twice his age could claim.

What attracted Soderbergh to Aaron and his adventures? "There's no rational reason for it," the filmmaker told me in an interview at Cannes in May, shortly before the movie was unveiled there. "I just felt very connected to the kid in Hotchner's book. He's someone who lives inside his head to a large extent, and I relate to that. He's also a bit of a fibber - prone to prevaricating and adapting to circumstances, depending on who's involved in them. As a filmmaker, I relate to that, too!"

Another motivation for making "King of the Hill' was Soderbergh's eagerness to try a more directly emotional kind of storytelling than his earlier pictures allowed. "I feel both my first films were kind of cerebral," he says, "more so than I would've liked. I was interested in dealing with material that was inherently a lot more volatile in its feelings - and this was, since it was all about a kid."

"King of the Hill" has a style as unusual as its story. Many of the images have a larger-than-life, almost surrealistic quality - closer to the audacious "Barton Fink" than to a conventional comedy like "Lost in Yonkers," the recent Neil Simon film about a family wrenched apart by the Depression.

"We tried to maintain a 12-year-old point of view," says Soderbergh about the look of his movie. "Adults are somewhat mysterious and unknowable to him. He's confused by their behavior, because it seems inconsistent and even inexplicable at times.

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"Some of that we tried to conjure with camera placement," he continues, "and other times it had to do with how things were lit. We tried to come up with a childlike point of view without resorting to distortion and wide-angle lenses.... I didn't want things to get too ornate, because I wanted to stay very close to Aaron all the time. Beyond that, I kind of made things up as I went along, as usual."

Although it has many gentle and humorous moments, "King of the Hill" also has strange and scary aspects, earning its PG-13 rating as it confronts Aaron with some bizarre people and frightening predicaments. One of the things that appealed to Soderbergh about his hero is that the boy has a knack for surviving whatever comes his way.

"But it's one of those situations where he doesn't know enough to be scared," the filmmaker muses about his main character. "If he had any real sense of how much danger he's in at a certain point, things might have turned out much worse for him.... It's his childlike resilience and innocence that keep him going. It never occurs to him that he won't get through, and that's probably what keeps him going."

THE able performers in "King of the Hill" include young Jesse Bradford as the protagonist, Lisa Eichhorn and Jeroen Krabbe as his parents, Cameron Boyd as his brother, and Spalding Gray and Elizabeth McGovern as two weird people in a hotel room down the hall.

This is a strong lineup, but despite it, the movie could prove a hard sell - since it's too inventively filmed for an ordinary Saturday-night entertainment, but not exotic or unorthodox enough to be marketed as an art film.

Soderbergh agrees that his movie presents a marketing challenge. 'It has a child at the center but it's not for children," he acknowledges. "There are no big stars, and there's no central idea that's easily grasped.... It seems to be the kind of film that 20 years ago would be sort of common, but is less so now. It's rare in America to see films about kids that aren't made for kids."

All this notwithstanding, Soderbergh decided not to waver from telling the story in his own way and on his own terms, letting the commercial chips fall where they may.

"When you know going in that a film is of a certain nature," he says, "you're better off making it undiluted. If you do dilute it to make it more 'palatable,' there's still no guarantee it'll go over with the public. So you might as well just make it, and feel good about that. And years from now you can look back and say, well, at least we made it the way it should be made."

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