(director/writer: Steven Soderbergh; screenwriter: based on the memoir by A. E. Hotchner; cinematographer: Elliot Davis; editor: Steven Soderbergh; music: Cliff Martinez; cast: Jesse Bradford (Aaron Kurlander), Karen Allen (Miss Mathey), Jeroen Krabbe (Mr. Eric Kurlander), Lisa Eichhorn (Mrs. Kurlander), Spalding Gray (Mr. Mungo), Elizabeth McGovern (Lydia), Adrien Brody (Lester), Cameron Boyd (Sullivan), Joseph Chrest (Ben), Chris Samples (Billy Thompson), Katherine Heigl (Christina Sebastian), Amber Benson (Ella McShane), John McConnell (Patrolman Burns),John Durbin (Mr. Sandoz), Lauryn Hill (Elevator Operator); Runtime: 103; MPAA Rating: PG-13; producers: Barbara Maltby/Albert Berger/Ron Yerxa; Gramercy Pictures; 1993)

“Tenderly directed and written by Steven Soderbergh.

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

This gentle coming-of-age Depression-era film is tenderly directed and written by Steven Soderbergh (“Sex, Lies and Videotape”/”Kafka”/”The Limey”). It’s based on the 1972 memoir by A. E. Hotchner. The positive film nevertheless struck me as too cutesy, too lacking of an edge and too sentimental to get a true depiction of the working-class during the Depression.

In St. Louis, in 1933, the bright, handsome and likable twelve-year-old Aaron Kurlander (Jesse Bradford) lives in a dumpy transient hotel with his German immigrant unemployed door-to-door wickless candle salesman father (Jeroen Krabbe), his loving ill mother (Lisa Eichhorn) and his playful younger brother Sullivan (Cameron Boyd). Though poor, Aaron impresses with his rich imagination, ability at marbles and with his guile when telling whoppers in class to his kindly eight-grade teacher Miss Mathey (Karen Allen) and his self-satisfied wealthy classmates. Aaron attends a top-level public school out of his neighborhood because his devious father allows the kid to falsify his address.

The Great Depression breaks the family apart, as Sullivan is sent to Iowa to live with his uncle. Mom has a relapse of her TB and returns for a long stay at the sanitarium. Meanwhile dad has little choice but to accept an out-of-town job by going on the road selling watches. The resourceful Aaron learns to take care of himself and gets some legal and illegal help from his streetwise heart-of-gold teenage neighbor Lester (Adrien Brody). Some of Aaron’s wealthy classmates and struggling colorful neighbors help the kid survive until his parents and brother return, and again the family reunites to weather the terrible economic storm. The beat cop (John McConnell) is depicted as a cartoonish bully, always going after vulnerable children. While the bully bellhop Ben (Joseph Chrest) is depicted as a lackey for the hotel management, who places in storage the possessions of those who don’t pay the hotel bill and shows them no respect when evicting them.

It’s a warm-hearted but safe film about the trials of a middle-class family coping with poverty during the Depression, that still to its credit shows the dark side of the Depression that upset the fabric of Middle American society. The winning performance by Jesse Bradford sticks out, and gives this earnest family drama an appealing uplift and a healthy dose of needed comedy.