As yet another film based upon a doll franchise, Kit Kittredge: An American Girl is the anti-Bratz: The Movie, which will cause many sighs of relief from parents who quickly steer their young, impressionable daughters away from those cell-phone brandishing, hourglass-figured, and heavily made up little trannies that spawned last summer’s doll-inspired feature film. A lot of this difference has to do with the American Girl dolls themselves, each of which represent a different U.S. historical snapshot, e.g., Civil War, Victorian, Bicentennial, and American Revolution. Each of these characters, detailed within several stories, is aged nine or ten and is extremely resourceful and fairly dauntless even in harsh times. After three made-for-television films, the American Girls franchise decided to go for the theatrical realm. The transition from small to large screen starts out as a promising endeavor, but screenwriter Ann Peacock and director Patricia Rozema (Mansfield Park) eventually overcomplicate matters and end up with an uneven product. So, while the rampant consumer whoredom of Bratz: The Movie makes Kit Kittredge: An American Girl seem stellar in comparison, the latter doesn’t hold up quite as well on its own due to sloppy scripting and haphazard plot weaving. Still, the film’s positives outweigh the negatives, and a solid role model and multi-generational appeal will score parental points every damn time.
The film follows the Depression-era experience of a young Cincinnati girl named Kit Kittredge (the perennially plucky Abigail Breslin), who lives a very solidly upper middle-class life and carries ambitions of becoming a reporter. Of course, these were the days when people used typewriters and newspapers were fairly solvent. When the Great Depression enters from all corners of the stage, Kit is surprisingly perceptive to the social changes taking place within her life as well as throughout her city. Kit’s father, Jack Kittredge (Chris O’Donnell, minus the bat nipples), is forced to shut down the family business and head for Chicago in pursuit of gainful employment while Margaret Kittredge (Julia Ormond) struggles to pay the mortgage. Kit and her mother perform odd jobs to help make ends meet, but most of their income comes from renting out their extra rooms to boarders. Suddenly, an eclectic mix of strangers are living in Kit’s formerly peaceful home, including mobile librarian Miss Bond (Joan Cusack), lonely dance instructor Miss Dooley (Jane Krakowski), and magician-illusionist Mr. Berk (Stanley Tucci). While Kit’s snooty neighbors merely raise eyebrows to the odd mixture shacking up next door, all neighborly behavior quickly erodes when two little street urchins, Will Shepherd (Max Thieriot) and Countee (Willow Smith), arrive to perform Kittredge household repairs in exchange for food. These two youngsters are perceived as part of the “hobo crime wave” and form a basis for the film’s lessons in tolerance.
Kit Kittredge: An American Girl is fairly successful as an educational and entertaining period film, with effective scenery and costuming (aside from Breslin’s blonde-bobbed wig that never fucking moves) lending a sense of realism. For the first hour or so, the film runs at a rather leisurely pace while the camera maintain’s a kid’s-eye-view to follow Kit’s journalistic endeavors and witness her struggles to help her mother financially. Unfortunately, the filmmakers felt compelled to squeeze in an overwrought dramatic climax and half-assed resolution involving the Kittredge moneybox, which contains the mortgage money, that goes missing. This results in an abrupt tonal shift where the film turns into a slightly wacky and very predictable sleuthing caper, which isn’t helped by the presence of Max Theriot, who appeared as the boytoy in last summer’s Nancy Drew. For these latter thirty minutes or so, the adults in the film descend into caricature mode. In particular, the boarders become absurdly slapsticky, and when Joan Cusack wildly and repeatedly flaps her arms, I pretty much figured that, between takes, she’d slammed several shots of Grey Goose vodka and tried to fly away like those pretty birds on the bottle. This bizarre behavioral shift was pretty universal throughout the film’s generally competent adult cast, and the fault lies solidly on the shoulders of the film’s script.
Despite its shortcomings, Kit Kittredge: An American Girl does provide enough pluses that parents will appreciate the film’s historical and economic lessons on the Great Depression. To a certain degree, these messages are rather relevant to our current economic crisis and may appear useful for young minds that observe their parents’ current financial worries, even if it’s only to watch grown-ups shell out, on average, four dollars for a gallon of gasoline. Obviously, this film contains fairly hefty subject matter for its G-rated confines, but the tone is kept mostly upbeat by the acting talent involved. In particular, Breslin infuses Kit with a well-ventilated yet aggressive determination that would, with a less-capable actress, seem overbearing. Instead, our jaunty heroine keeps the momentum going through the most wrenching moments, which involve some fathers leaving to find work and never returning. Even Kit’s father disappoints as his letters come less frequently as the film progresses, and our heroine receives an unwelcome jolt while volunteering at a soup kitchen only to see her father show up in the dinner line. In the face of such frightening apparitions of foreclosure and ostracism that come along with financial ruin, the children within Kit Kittredge: An American Girl are forced to take on adult responsibilities, but at the same time, they do manage to retain their childlike ways. After all, there are plenty of opportunities for girls’ secret clubhouse meetings while the foreclosure signs are placed in the neighbors’ front yards.
Agent Bedhead (a.k.a. “Kimberly”) lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma. She can be found at agentbedhead.com.Little Miss Ain't We Got Fun
Film | July 7, 2008 | Comments ()