Jesse Bradford did not receive an Oscar nomination for portraying Aaron Kurlander in King of the Hill.
A funny thing about King of the Hill is for me it almost came off as a companion piece, well we'll say a much darker cousin to A Christmas story, to explain. Well both films are based on the semi autobiographical writings of a man recounting their childhood who were both born in the early twenties. A major difference though is A Christmas Story's basis was written by a humorist while King of the Hill's was based on a memoir. Either way though both focus upon a boy in the 30's and the various events going around his life. This film though technically demands more from its child lead, as there is no adult narrator to buttress the character a bit. It is all on Bradford. The idea of focusing on a child actor actually in itself is a bit of a gamble as it is easy enough to get the two typical sorts of bad child actors. The bland type that just kind of is there and recites their lines with no meaning behind them, or the chronic overacting type that seeks to be cute rather than convincing. Bradford is neither of these thankfully, but this performance is even a bit atypical from of the few other child performances I've praised in the past.
The film opens simply enough with the young Aaron reciting his story about Charles Lindberg though he has written in a way as though he is a personal friend of the man. This just seems to be a method to frame the story though. Now what Bradford does so well is that he makes this like any other kid just delivery a homework assignment, though with just a bit of apprehension as he gives the details to notice most of the other students are bored by his story. Bradford is equally natural, and endearing in a very naturalistic way as Aaron takes his seat and receives more than just a glance from one of the girls in class. Bradford realizes such an honest confusion as he looks around rather sure that he's not the one he's admiring. Now after that point we get the essential set up for the film where the boy is first separated from his younger brother, then his mother due to her illness, and eventually his father while he goes on the road as a salesman. This eventually leaves him all alone at a hotel with some strange characters in and around it. From here on in the film we get more of scenes and moments then a plot line, which actually something I rather like about the film.
This structure works particularly well in tandem with Bradford's unassuming but not underwhelming approach to the part. Bradford is careful to show that Aaron isn't this deeply troubled boy really as a person, and in a way is not quite aware of just what his situation might be given the time and place. Bradford is careful to still have a general undercurrent of childhood enthusiasm within his performance, very utilized by him. In that Bradford conveys a definite sense of fear with the unknown at times yet he links it well to suggest a certain interest in the various new people he's discovering and getting to know. Bradford doesn't inflict Aaron with an inherent damage still exemplifying that he is still a kid in this situation, and importantly interacts with his situation as a kid not an adult. This can even be in rather simple, yet very effective ways, such as his relationship with a girl, Ella, also in the hotel who suffers from seizures. It isn't a romance that Bradford depicts, as he so well shows a shyness in Aaron of a boy who just wouldn't quite know how to react even when it obvious a girl likes him. What Bradford instead gives a warmth of a real friend instead, and brings such a delicate sweetness in these scenes suggesting the right gentle concern as her condition worsens.
That is one of his experiences though as Aaron attempts to find some other source of income, all the while trying to avoid a sinister bellboy attempting to change the locks on his room. Bradford is again incredibly good at portraying this so honestly as a boy attempting to gain money, whether it is hatching bird eggs or attempting to be a golf caddy. In both circumstances his attempts do no go particularly well. Again Bradford does not portray any sort of emotional collapse in Aaron in these failures, portraying instead a resilience within the boy to keep going. It is not to say Bradford doesn't portray anything though instead he very subtly wears these defeats in his performance, very quiet yet very moving all the same. This method of Bradford's alludes well to Aaron's nature, which is to try to take things in stride since that's really the only way he can take them given his situation. Bradford by doing this no seems underwhelming by internalizing every moment so well, whether is the genuine happiness at seeing his mother again, or the horror at discovering one of his neighbors has committed suicide. That is all except one aspect of his life that comes back to Aaron's story of Charles Lindberg at the beginning of the film. The first person perspective of the story ends up connecting to the frequent lies that Aaron tells his classmates and even his teacher in order to avoid revealing the truth about his difficult circumstances at home. Bradford portrays these lies as something that come so easily from him, yet within his words there is an unease not of the lie but rather for his peers to learn the truth about his home life. This nervousness about his situation grows until he attends a party where he finally hears that so many of the students are well aware of what he has been trying to hide. Bradford is rather heartbreaking by so effectively realizing Aaron's pain. He perhaps loses his composure most at this scene, yet Bradford still wears much of it within his work to show the anguish in his silence. Aaron never gives up despite his hardship and that is the key of Bradford's performance. His work is poignant as it conveys the experiences of this boy, as it makes it through his life. Bradford is convincing in showing the difficulty of it as well as the joys that can be found, and most importantly the ability to keep going.