Ty Burr
March 04, 1994 AT 05:00 AM EST

If you ever want to know where a particular movie is coming from — its attitude toward (or flight from) reality — check out the way it portrays children. Are they jaded little Seinfelds, barking out witticisms that wouldn’t occur to your average late-night talk-show host? Are they pink vessels of innocence, untouched by the world’s harshness? Or are they more complex, more confused, more real? Two recent movies out on tape this week force the issue. The slick thriller the good son (1993, Fox Video, R, priced for rental) and the subtle Depression drama king of the hill (1993, MCA/Universal, PG-13, priced for rental) are both grown-upfilms that center on young boys. While their aims couldn’t be more different — one’s a pumped-up schoolyard bully of a movie, the other’s the pale class aesthete — both admit to an aspect of kidhood the media usually denies: the anxiety that comes from trying to figure out the rules.

On the surface, The Good Son doesn’t aspire to anything higher than solid, middlebrow trash, so film snobs may be tempted to chuck it on the pop-cult dung heap with other ”(Blank)-from-Hell” jolters like The Hand That Rocks the Cradle. But this is a movie with a split personality. Part of the time it is a formulaic scare machine about a just-plain-evil 12-year-old named Henry who has already bumped off a sibling and is coldly looking around to see who’s next. At other times, The Good Son is a more slippery fable about how Henry’s cousin Mark deals with the death of his mother. The star of the first movie, and the reason it was a hit in theaters, is Macaulay Culkin. The star of the second movie, and the reason it’s good, is Elijah Wood.

Under Joseph Ruben’s direction, The Good Son has its share of shockeroo showstoppers. The scene in which Henry pushes his little sister (Mac’s own sis, Quinn Culkin) onto a pond’s thin ice is a bravura piece of pop queasiness. But Ruben can’t do a thing about his mushmouthed star, who lacks the tart hypocrisy of The Bad Seed’s Patty McCormack, or even Leave It to Beaver’s Eddie Haskell. It was easier to overlook Culkin’s affectless acting style on the big screen, dazzled as one was by John Lindley’s crisp cinematography and the film’s hurtling pace. On video, Mac is front and center, a hazy blob of surliness where there should be a sharp-edged enigma.

So, on tape, The Good Son becomes even more Elijah Wood’s movie. And he delivers, with an adroit portrait that reflects a decent child’s response to unexpected terrors. Mark reacts to his mom’s death with believable immaturity — he becomes convinced her spirit has entered into his aunt Susan (Wendy Crewson). Cousin Henry picks up on the insecurities and, in The Good Son’s homestretch, goads Mark into fits of paranoia. The kid goes nuts trying to save everybody, but Ruben and screenwriter Ian McEwan (the real source of the movie’s darker text) know that that’s an impossible task. They prove it in a literal cliffhanger of a climax that deliriously junks plausibility for a more resonant pop truth.

If The Good Son is soft around the edges, King of the Hill is as intensely focused — and almost as savvy — as its 12-year-old protagonist. Directed by sex, lies and videotape’s Steven Soderbergh and based on A.E. Hotchner’s memoir of his Depression youth, the movie is about rendering a particular time and place — 1933 St. Louis — with as much remembered clarity as possible. Aaron Kurlander (Jesse Bradford) slowly sees his family stripped away by the grinding needs of the time — his kid brother is sent to live with relatives, his mom (Lisa Eichhorn) is in a TB ward, and his dad (Jeroen Krabbe) has to hit the road when he gets a job as a watch salesman. Aaron is left behind in a ramshackle residential hotel, money dribbling away and eviction creeping in. Talk about being home alone.

The key to King of the Hill’s quiet power is its refusal to sentimentalize. That extends to Bradford’s portrayal of a tough, resourceful kid who is still just a kid. Aaron watches in growing unease as grown-up acquaintances fall to eviction, arrest, or suicide; as the good life represented by his better-off school chums recedes from his grasp; as hunger and fear overcome his street smarts. When the family finally coalesces again at the film’s end, you can almost hear Soderbergh breathe a sigh of relief. If the lesson of The Good Son is that you can’t save everybody, King of the Hill answers that going it alone is even worse. The Good Son: B+; King of the Hill: A-

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