Kit Kittredge: An American Girl Reviews
Directed by Patricia Rozema, "Kit Kittredge: An American Girl" proves the old adage that any movie with a basset hound in it cannot be all bad. In fact, this is a charming and entertaining movie that does not ignore the harsh realities of the time that forced families apart, not the other way around. And a more than capable cast makes up for any holes the otherwise thin story might contain.
(Full review coming soon - with better wording probably)
Children are generally less affected by the realities of the world than adults. I remember being poor as a child, but a classmate of mine--you couldn't really call him a friend--had a really weird view of what that meant. Other people I knew had a desperate scorn of shopping at low-price stores. Practicality didn't much enter into it. I still twitch over certain brand names in fashion and shoes because the idea that someone couldn't afford them didn't enter into my classmates' heads. I have often said that there is a difference between rural poor, urban poor, and suburban poor, and we were suburban poor. The poverty shown here mostly is as well, though a couple of characters are established to have been from a farm in Texas. It can also be described as genteel poverty, which I can agree is different from how people picture poverty. Arguably, most of my friends are living in genteel poverty now, for a given definition of "genteel."
Kit Kittredge (Abigail Breslin in a blonde wig) lives in suburban Cincinnati. Her father (Chris O'Donnell) works for a car dealership, and her mother (Julia Ormond) is a typical '30s housewife. It's 1932, and the Depression hasn't touched them. Only now, it's starting to. Their neighbours' house gets foreclosed on. Kit's father loses his job and goes to Chicago in an attempt to find a new one. They meet clean-cut hobos Will Shepherd (Max Thieriot) and Countee Garby (Willow Smith). They take in boarders, including Stanley Tucci as a magician, Joan Cusack as a mobile librarian, and Jane Krakowski as a dance instructor. Kit and her interchangeable friends deal with the astonishing suddenness of poverty. Kit tries to write an article which would get printed in the local paper by editor Wallace Shawn despite the fact that she's a child, which would pretty much make her more a novelty than a genuine reporter. And then, of course, the money for the mortgage gets stolen, and Kit and her interchangeable friends try to solve the mystery and clear her hobo friends.
There really is an astonishing cast to this movie. It feels as though all these people were doing another movie for their kids, with the distinct difference that this one was actually worth watching. (Wallace Shawn doesn't have kids mentioned on IMDB, but I'm never sure why he does anything but art films, especially since he firmly declares that he has no sense of humour but is always cast for laughs.) There are three Oscar nominees in this, including our title character. (Who was the fourth-youngest Oscar nominee in the field of Best Supporting Actress, which is weird given how major her character was. It's what they usually do for child actors--they get supporting instead of lead.) With very few exceptions, every time a new adult character stepped onscreen, I recognized them. One of the hobos is Colin Mochrie. Kit's horrible great-uncle was Agent Cooper's old partner and current nemesis, who also tied up the Mountie. It got kind of weird after a while.
The political aspects of the Depression are kind of danced around. There are several references to the New Deal--Kit has a brother who's off in the Civilian Conservation Corps, I believe, and sending money home. (Interestingly, in California at least, it's a New Deal program which is still going. Because it's a good idea.) A couple of the kids say that all jobless/homeless people are bums sucking off the government. Uncle Windom Earle is very firm on the subject, showering scorn on the brother for having the job while having equal scorn for the father for not being able to find one. The ever-popular opinion that all those people deserve what they get is aired. They're all criminals. One of the stories Kit can't sell is how the people in the "hobo jungle" are decent. They help one another. They share what little they have. However, the automatic assumption when thefts start happening in the area is that it is someone from that jungle who has done it. Though we never see vigilantes breaking up the camp.
Amusingly, one of the symbols of my own poverty was the American Girls catalogue. I was astonished by how much people spent on dolls. And the accessories--books and outfits and outfits for the doll owners and so forth. This was in the early days, and there were already a dozen or so possibilities. I was not much older than Kit, I think, when I first was exposed to it. I had felt poverty sooner, though, and so I was astonished at the beginning of the movie when Kit said the Depression hadn't touched them yet. It had been going on for three years. Recovery was just about to start. True, the film is set right about the time of maximum unemployment--25%--but still. It comes as an absolute shock to these kids when people start losing homes and jobs, and Kit literally cannot believe the changes in her life would ever have come to her. The other kids, and even the adults, go in with the impression that it will never happen to them. Arguably, that kind of blindness is part of what caused the problem in the first place.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Kit Kittredge is a 10 year old aspiring journalist who lives in an upper middle-class suburb of Cincinnati in 1934. Through a family connection, she boldly calls upon the publisher of a major Cincinnati newspaper and asks him to publish an article she's written. Somehow I was thinking that it might have been more interesting if the plot had gone in a different direction from the beginning. Instead of being turned down and not getting her article published until the movie is just about over (and that's the way the plot actually plays out), it might have been more interesting if somehow Kit enlists an adult to get herself published and then her articles become a sensation. Kit becomes a young "Cyrano" with her adult friend (perhaps the 19 year old gopher who Kit was put in contact with by her brother at the beginning of the film) attempts to keep the ruse going, with the publisher and the co-workers at the newspaper in the dark until the film's climax. In my 'alternative' scenario, Kit is found out at the end and 'exposed'; she falls from grace but is redeemed after her final article exposes a team of con men who have been preying upon the good members of the community.
As it turns out, The Kittredge 'First Act' is replete with politically correct, anachronistic ideas. The 'hobos' are nothing more than a stand-in for today's immigrants while the kids whose families are lucky enough to escape the ravages of the Depression, mouth platitudes in school about the hobos not working and getting "government handouts". The rich kids are equated with the conservative, right-wing Republicans of today.
The film's second act begins when Kit's father loses his car dealership (it's interesting that he was still able to have a thriving business as late as 1934!). The father decides to pack his bags and go to Chicago to find new employment. Kit's mother is forced to take in boarders much to Kit's chagrin. Here's where the film really starts dragging. Instead of introducing the antagonist, the plot focuses on introducing us to the collection of oddball characters who inhabit the boarding house. The machinations of these characters are supposed to be amusing but they are merely foolish (there are one too many scenes with Miss Bond, the mobile librarian, crashing her truck in the front yard along with the undeveloped character Miss Dooley who happens to be a dancer of sorts). Then there's Mr. Berk, played by Stanley Tucci, who wows the kids with his magic tricks (another scene that did not have to go on as long as it did).
In addition to the boarders, Kit meets two Hobo children, Will and Countee and decides to investigate the Hobo 'way of life'. Implausibly, Kit's mother allows her to go to a hobo camp to do some 'research' for one of her articles, but wouldn't you know it the hobos are a bunch of wonderful people (despite police reports of many robberies committed by various members of their group). Much too late in the story, the Hobo children are accused of stealing all the boarders' valuables which Kit's mother had placed in what she believed to be a 'safe place'.
By Act III, we've finally discovered that Mr. Berk, the magician, his associate and Miss Bond are a bunch of con artists who have been victimizing poor boarding house denizens all over the city. Since they are a bunch of clumsy fools (buffoons), Kit easily figures out (with the assistance of her young buddies) that they're the one's who framed poor Will; he's soon exonerated and the police now arrest the magician and his buddy after they are exposed by Kit and company.
The denouement is unsatisfying as well. Kit's father returns from Chicago and inexplicably hasn't been able to find one job there. So he reassures Kit that he intends to remain in Cincinnati (despite the fact that there is still no work for him there). Finally, the newspaper publisher arrives and announces that he's published Kit's first article. Instead of becoming an exciting muckraker from the beginning, Kit's new found fame comes a little too late in the storyline.
Unfortunately, little Abigail Breslin is once again used by adults for nefarious purposes. In the insufferable "Little Miss Sunshine", she ends up dancing in a sexually suggestive way at the end of the movie (it's supposed to be "cute" but in reality is a cynical attempt by the films' scenarists to promote an elitist agenda?modern day beatniks trumping beauty pageant snobs). Here little Abigail is also used to promote another modern-day form of elitism: the victims of today's economic woes get their shots in at today's fat cats (no doubt Corporate Executive types who get big bonuses). At least here the 'anything goes' philosophy of 'Little Miss Sunshine' is no longer operative but little Abigail once again comes off as overly pushy and aggressive(and certainly not 'cute').
In the end, 'Kittredge' patronizes both adults and children alike. The film's scenarists were afraid to expose children to a dose of reality. The Depression here is reduced to a Hallmark Greeting Card with villains who are buffoons and heroes who can do no wrong. What it needed to be was another 'Wizard of Oz' with a wicked witch antagonist who is actually scary and evil and protagonists (such as Dorothy and her buddies) who have real-life, honest-to-goodness, human foibles.
A story about a time in what is for them the distant past should be allowed to unfold at the speed of life in that time in place, when there was not TV or Internet and a New York minute sill had sixty seconds.
I will admit I thought Joan Cusack was a little over the top for the circumstances but the majority of the cast appeared to be sensitive to the time and palce.
It was nice to have a story that wasn't obviously preachy and fit well with the times. It was not impossible for a girl to get an article published in the local paper.
I think I can safely rate this a not to be missed film for kids on cable.