Picks and Pans Review: King of the Hill

updated 09/06/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/06/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Jesse Bradford, Karen Allen, Lisa Eichhorn, Jeroen Krabbe, Elizabeth McGovern

If this film, the third by director Steven Soderbergh (sex, lies and videotape), did nothing other than rescue Allen, Eichhorn and McGovern from Hollywood's pit of criminally underused actresses, it would have been a noble enterprise. But it is also a moving, intelligent and often profound evocation of the pervasively devastating effects of the Depression on working-class Americans.

Bradford, a remarkably poised 14-year-old actor, is an eighth grader growing up in St. Louis in 1933. His father, Krabbe, a freelance salesman, has been reduced to trying, futilely, to sell candles door-to-door. Bradford's mother, Eichhorn, is in and out of hospitals because of tuberculosis. The family lives in a hotel that is a half step up from fleabag level. Most of the drama comes from small events, such as Bradford's worrying that he doesn't have any decent clothes to wear to his graduation (Allen is his sympathetic teacher) and the subtle rapport he develops with McGovern, a young prostitute who lives in the hotel. Soderbergh gels honest emotional mileage out of such scenes as Bradford's little brother (Cameron Boyd) being packed off to a foster home, Krabbe's departure on a traveling sales trip to Oklahoma and Eichhorn's latest stay at the sanatorium. Like John Ford's The Grapes of Wrath, King of the Hill combines an engrossing personal story with an implicit tribute to the brave, unassuming Americans who not only survived the national trauma, but profited from it, pulling a strengthened country from the slow-burning furnace of the Depression. (PG-13)

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