Shameless in its sentimentality, pokey in terms of propulsion and about as surprising as finding vegetables in a bowl of vegetable soup, Patricia Rozema’s Kit Kittredge: An American Girl still comes as a little oasis of thoughtfulness in a summer largely devoted to property damage and rampant explosions. Those of you who cringe at the thought of a movie based on stories that are derived from a line of dolls, get the notion of last year’s Bratz out of your head. Kit Kittredge is the anti-Bratz. There’s actual substance here. And acting. And characters. And directing rather than mere refereeing. In short, it’s a movie, not a 90-minute plug for a line of pricey dolls.
This doesn’t mean Kit Kittredge is a summer blockbuster. Despite good reviews, it has “underperformed” at the box office, which is studio-speak for “pretty much tanked.” That’s not exactly a huge surprise, since its predominately upscale-tween appeal is limited. The pity is that it’s a movie that youngsters ought to see. That’s not so much grounded in the fact that it presents worthwhile life lessons—though it undeniably does—but because it works both as a reasonably entertaining history lesson on the Great Depression and something of a mild allegory to our current situation. It’s a film that can lead to somewhat weightier—and far less uncomfortable—discourse between parents and children than you’re likely to get trying to explain certain plot points and verbal tirades in Hancock.
The story line is no great shakes. Young Kit (Abigail Breslin, who has easily dethroned Dakota Fanning as top tot in the movies) is a wannabe reporter in 1934 Cincinnati. Her dad (Chris O’Donnell, Kinsey) runs a car dealership, while her mom (Julia Ormond, Inland Empire) is a housewife. Life is pretty sweet from where Kit sits—often in a tree house, the kind that pops up in old movies. Still, she can’t help but notice that there are signs that all is far from right with the world. While Mom entertains the local ladies at a backyard social, the neighbors are finding their possessions being carted off and a foreclosure sign being hammered into their lawn. And then there’s the intrusion of a pair of young hobos—Will (Max Thierot, Nancy Drew) and Countee (Willow Smith—yes, Will Smith’s daughter)—who offer to work for food, much to the horror of Mom’s friends.
At school, Kit encounters much cruelty from other children on the topic of foreclosures and soup kitchens—the kids obviously parroting their parents’ prejudices against anyone who “got themselves” into such situations. There’s some of this at home, too, in the person of snobbish Uncle Hendrick (Kenneth Welsh, 4: Rise of the Silver Surfer), whose hard-heartedness extends to his own family. (He’s appalled that his niece should have to lower herself to saving leftovers.) All this really hits home, however, when Dad loses his car dealership to the bank and has to go to Chicago to look for work. In the meantime, it falls to Kit and Mom to take in boarders and, in short, do whatever they can just to survive.
There’s also mystery to the plot—the film was originally titled Kit Kittredge: An American Girl Mystery—that’s not all that terribly baffling, but which does underscore what a missed opportunity last year’s Nancy Drew was. It’s also a mystery that’s shrewdly geared to keep the film’s themes on target, since the villains of the piece try to play on people’s fears of and prejudices against hobos by framing Will and Countee for their crimes. Yes, the film definitely romanticizes the hobo life—and ultimately to a preposterous degree—but it works within the confines of the story, and it provides a refreshing exploration of the fallacy of using a group as an all-purpose scapegoat.
Further, there’s an interesting—and currently very to the point—depiction of the media. When Kit tries to hawk her story of the real lives of the hobos to the Cincinnati Register, the editor (Wallace Shawn) shoots the idea down. The point is that he doesn’t reject Kit’s story on its own merits. Rather, he nixes it because it goes against public perceptions on the subject and isn’t what the people want to read. Aspects such as this—and the ever-growing number of foreclosures depicted in the film—give the period film relevance in 2008.
Don’t misunderstand. Kit Kittredge isn’t unnecessarily downbeat and preachy. Most of it is played fairly lightly—relying on running gags, likeably quirky characters and even a cunning monkey for its tone. But at the same time, the movie doesn’t pull its punches in its depiction of families destroyed by the Great Depression, of children forced into premature adulthood and of children understanding more of what’s happening than their parents in some cases. For adults, it’s not a great movie, though it’s certainly entertaining and well made. For those adults with children, ask yourselves if you’d rather have a post-movie discussion with your kids about the Depression, or have to explain why it’s probably not the best idea to take a page from Hancock and threaten to insert someone’s head up someone else’s rectum? Rated G.