Few directors have fallen prey to the sophomore jinx as dramatically as Steven Soderbergh, who followed up the ingenious and humane sex, lies, and videotape (1989) with Kafka (1992), a grimly enervated catalogue of film-school cliches. Now, though, he has made a sensational return to form. KING OF THE HILL (PG-13), Soderbergh's third feature, is the work of a true film artist. Based on A.E. Hotchner's memoir of growing up in St. Louis during the Depression, this story of a 12-year-old boy who drops through the net of middle-class life invites us- in each shimmering frame-to gaze upon the world with a child's freshly awakening vision.
Aaron Kurlander (Jesse Bradford) lives in the seedy Empire Hotel with his brooding salesman father (Jeroen Krabbe), his nurturing but sickly mother (Lisa Eichhorn), and his adoring little brother (Cameron Boyd). One by one, the family members are pulled away (by illness, last-ditch economic opportunities, etc.), and Adam is left to fend for himself, a predicament that becomes both a nightmare and a quietly cathartic adventure. Under Soderbergh's delicate hand (he both wrote and directed), even the darkest moments -- at one point the famished Aaron creates a ''meal'' from magazine photographs of food -- are rendered with a kind of innocent awe, as if Aaron, through the very desperation of his circumstances, had moved a step closer to the pulse of life. Bradford, with his astonishingly alert and sensual features, gives the supplest performance of any young actor this year. Gazing with voyeuristic fascination upon the cracked denizens of his hotel (Spalding Gray is especially memorable as a former swell turned drunken burnout), slyly concealing his impoverished status from the more well-off kids at school, Aaron displays such a poignant mixture of vulnerability and resilience that, by the end of King of the Hill, he has come to seem as pure an embodiment of childhood passions as Antoine Doinel in Truffaut's The 400 Blows.