Kit Kittredge
The Depression All Dolled Up

Early on in Kitt Kittredge: An American Girl, Kit’s mother entertains the ladies from the neighborhood in her back yard.  It’s 1934, and times are tough all over—yet in this neighborhood, at least, the families are hanging on to some sense of normalcy… though to be sure, there’s enough egg-selling and penny pinching to serve as cause for teasing amongst school kids.

During the luncheon, two youngsters turn up looking for work.  “Let them go hungry,” one of the neighbors recommends.  “It’s the only way to keep them out of town.”  Kit’s mom, though, can’t find it in her heart to turn the two hobo orphans away.  “They’re someone else’s boys, too,” she observes.

Moments such as these—of which there are many in Kit Kittredge—are among the film’s pleasant surprises.  First and foremost, one doesn’t necessarily expect a great deal of social consciousness from a film franchise built on an “experiential retail” empire whose cornerstone is dolls that sell in excess of $100… and require manicures and visits to the salon. 

Abigail Breslin as Kit Kittredge

So it warms the heart, somewhat, to see that decent, human values are being communicated by a corporate enterprise.  “When times are tough,” one character intones, “people like to blame someone.”  But in the context of the story, we know we’re being asked to have compassion upon hoboes and bread-line beggars; and we also know that the film is encouraging compassion toward what we call “the homeless” and “illegal aliens” today.

The story centers on Kit’s developing friendship with the two young hoboes, and the mystery that develops around a string of robberies in the area around Cincinnati.  Kit is determined to be a reporter—right now, that is, not just when she grows up!—and her natural skills come to play not only in shedding light on the plight of the less fortunate, but also in bringing the true culprits to justice.

Also surprising is the fine period feel of the film, with no effort spared with costumes, period architecture, props, music, hobo lingo, and general historical accuracy.  For what essentially amounts to a pure children’s film—in the spirit of the original Nancy Drew or Hardy Boys books—there’s a good deal of grit and pathos.  It’s not Bound for Glory or The Grapes of Wrath, to be sure, or even Cinderella Man; but I haven’t found a period family film so appealing since Iron Will.  Take that for what it’s worth.

Kit Kittredge also does a fine job of advocating for the nuclear family, quite a unique thing these days.  Perhaps borrowing from the Little House episode in which Charles Ingalls must leave the homestead to look for work elsewhere, the story here takes Kit’s father away when his car dealership fails.  Kit, naturally, laments: “We’re not okay if we’re not together.”  Other recent films such as The Spiderwick Chronicles (or even Harry Potter) also delve into broken-home scenarios; but Kit Kittredge in unique in that it holds out the hope and ideal of reconciliation and reunion.

Patricia Rozema and her scriptwriters also bring a light-hearted self-awareness to the whole affair—primarily achieved through Kit’s journalistic aspirations.  At one point, she winds up in the offices of newspaper editor Mr. Gibson, who encourages Kit to think not only of her craft but her audience.  “You want people to buy it,” he cajoles, “not laugh at it.” 

So when it comes to the rather tepid Keystone Kops antics of the final chase, it’s pretty clear that the filmmakers know they’re doing a bit of a balancing act, and are ultimately catering to the tastes of their primary audience: the kids who adore these dolls, not their doting parents.  As one character notes, “You’ve got to play the tune your audience wants to sing to.”

One last surprise worth mentioning is the welcome appearance here of Chris O’Donnell and Julia Ormond as Kit’s parents.  Both of these one-time A-listers are wonderful actors who are always a joy to watch, and they are both perfectly cast and directed here.  Wallace Shawn also delights as editor Gibson.  Not faring so well in one-note minor  roles—and this is also something of a surprise—are Joan Cusack and Stanley Tucci.

Not so suprising is Abigail Breslin’s solid work as Kit.  All in all, this is pretty solid family entertainment, and it’s a worthy lesson about how the “haves” and the “have-nots” are not so different, and how we all share the same world.

Yet I have my misgivings about “do as we suggest, not as we market” nature of the project.  Certainly, parents whose children have not yet been exposed to the American Girl experience would do well to think twice about introducing their children to what could become a very, very expensive obsession.  These dolls are not very parent-friendly toys for families with tight budgets.

Kit Kittredge is rated G.  It’s tough to tell what kind of connections certain impressionable children will make between the Great Depression and today’s foreclosures, stock market slump, fuel price increases, and general belt-tightening.  I imagine this film could be quite frightening for some.  Even with truly G-rated entertainment such as this, you’ve got to know your own children.

Courtesy of a national publicist, Greg attended a press junket screening of Kitt Kittredge.