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The Kid Stays in Print
on July 3, 2008
"Kit Kittredge: An American Girl" is certainly heartwarming and innocent, but that doesn't mean it's shallow and cloying. I admit that I thought it would be, mostly because I was expecting a virtual clone of last year's awful "Nancy Drew." There are certain similarities: both feature plucky young girls who do a lot of investigating; both have an assortment of colorful side characters; both are based on a series of stories, both feature Max Theroit. Unlike "Nancy Drew," however, "Kit Kittredge" aims to tell a good story with real subtexts; taking place at the height of the Great Depression, we meet characters that are downtrodden and desperate, not only because their financial situations are bleak, but also because they face the scorn and rejection of ignorant people. This adaptation of stories drawn from the "American Girl" doll line mixes childish zeal with some very mature themes, and that alone made it worth seeing.
Abigail Breslin brings enthusiasm, charm, and heart to the title character, a ten-year-old girl from Cincinnati, Ohio who runs a tree house club and dreams of becoming a newspaper reporter. She wants to write stories with fresh angles so that she can finally get into print. A pair of hobos--a helpful teenager named Will (Max Theroit) and his young friend, Countee (Willow Smith)--inspire Kit to write an article on hobo life. The fresh angle is that it will be told entirely from a kid's perspective, which may be needed in this case since many adults feel hobos are good-for-nothing leeches that suck the government dry. Kit has heard this rhetoric from her neighbors and classmates--one especially snotty young boy says that selling eggs and wearing dresses made of chicken feed bags bring you one step closer to the poorhouse.
But Kit is beginning to understand the hobos' plight, not only because many of her neighbors have lost their homes to foreclosures, but also because her unemployed father (Chris O'Donnell) is forced to find work all the way in Chicago. Hoping to make ends meet, Kit's mother (Julia Ormond) turns their home into a boarding house. This is how we meet: Ms. Dooley (Jane Krakowski), a husband-seeking dance instructor; the disapproving Mrs. Howard (Glenne Headly) and her young son, Sterling (Zach Mills); Ms. Bond (Joan Cusack), a slightly goofball mobile librarian; and Jefferson Burke (Stanley Tucci), a magician. When the subject of hobo robberies comes up, Mrs. Kittredge has everyone put their valuables in her lockbox. When it's stolen, everyone suspects Will as the culprit, including the police. Kit takes it upon herself to investigate. Despite what the evidence suggests, she believes her hobo friend is innocent.
It fairly obvious that "Kit Kittredge" is a commentary on prejudice; at one point in the film, Kit tells a cantankerous newspaper editor (Wallace Shawn) that there are good hobos and there are bad hobos, much like good apples and bad apples. She then gets a hard lesson in office politics when it's revealed that newspapers print only what the public wants to read, and the unfortunate truth is that the public is intolerant of hobos. Naturally, those who say this haven't met the people living in a hobo jungle, as Kit has; they're some of the nicest people around, and they willingly let Kit photograph them and write about them for her article. Messages of acceptance and understanding are not new, certainly not for a family film. But unlike a lot of other such stories, "Kit Kittredge" doesn't condescend, and when we leave, we feel both entertained and emotionally rejuvenated.
Aside from Kit, one of the film's best characters is Sterling, who at such a young age has already been beaten down by life. Sterling's father, much like Kit's, also left Cincinnati to find work, and communication with his family has steadily decreased. You see nothing but hurt and sadness in this boy's eyes. He and Kit are practically in the same boat, which is why they form a special bond. Kit is now worried that her father will forget her and her mother completely, even after promising to write them every single week. I remember a scene when Kit types a letter to her father; the frustration and fear she pours into the first draft makes for a heartbreaking moment.
I can't guarantee that adults will be as receptive to "Kit Kittredge: An American Girl" as kids will, but I definitely recommend they give it a chance. The doll may be a hollow piece of plastic, but the character is something else entirely--she's kind, spirited, intelligent, and just plain wonderful. Some may criticize the film for being too sentimental, and indeed, it's light-hearted and optimistic, more than would be expected from a story set during the Depression. But it's more mature than it lets on. Even with a childish sense of humor, hopelessness and grief are not spared on the audience. It's always a pleasure to see a family film that was made with all audiences in mind, not just kids. "Kit Kittredge" is such a film, one of the most enjoyable I've seen all summer.