July 6, 2008

Movie Review: Kit Kittredge - An American Girl

It was just over a year ago that a big screen version of Nancy Drew arrived on the big screen. Nancy Drew is a character with plenty of story potential, but the movie turned out to be rather lame. Sure, it was bright and sunny, but it did feel all that smart. Where I hoped for a big screen Veronica Mars, I got a flick that was not quote sure what it wanted to be. It was clearly set in the present, yet its main protagonist was stuck in the 1950's, sharing the tone of The Brady Bunch Movie. In the present we get a film that shares some of the stylistic choices of Nancy Drew, yet has a much clearer focus on where it is set and what it wants to be. In the end, Kit Kittredge: An American Girl is a lot closer to what Nancy Drew was hoping to accomplish, plus it is a much more enjoyable movie.

One thing I did not know prior to seeing the movie was the source. I was not aware that the character was originally conceived as a doll. The American Girl line of dolls made their debut in 1986 and depicted young girls, aged 9-10, at significant historical points. Each doll has a selection of alternate outfits and stories. Oh yes, stories. Each doll had stories based around them that dealt with important issues of the corresponding era. Kit Kittredge centers on a girl living at the dawn of the Great Depression, and that is where the film picks up our intrepid youngster.

The year is 1934, the Depression is beginning to take a heavy toll on the Cincinnati town where Kit (Abigail Breslin) and her family lives. Kit has dreams of becoming a reporter, spending much of her time with a typewriter in her treehouse writing news articles based upon what she saw. This includes when she sees her neighbors selling eggs in an attempt to make ends meet, ultimately loosing their home to bank foreclosure. This brings up worries: "Will this happen to us? Will we lose our home?"

As the story progresses, we watch Kit as she travels to the newpaper office in an attempt to sell an article to the editor, Mr. Gibson (a scowl-wearing Wallace Shawn). Her attempts are unsuccessful, but does little to dampen her spirit. It actually had the opposite effect, the denial just drives her to succeed that much harder.

Along the way Kit adopts a homeless dog named Grace, and befriends a couple of hobos, Will (Max Thieriot) and his younger partner Countee (Willow Smith), much to the chagrin of the neighbors and the boarders in the Kittredge home.

Oh, you don't know about the boarders? Well, Kit's father (Chris O'Donnell) has left for Chicago to look for work and to help pay the mortgage Kit's mother (Julia Ormond) has turned their home into a boarding house, renting out space to a collection of colorful folks. Among them are a magician (Stanley Tucci), a dance instructor (Jane Krakowski), a mobile librarian who is a terrible driver (Joan Cusack), and others including a monkey at one point. Each of them add a little flavor to the film, helping show what the time period was like.

I am sure you are saying to yourself: "That's all well and good, but is there a plot? So far all you've given us is setting and some of the characters." Yes, there is a plot, one that ties in nicely with the time frame while also working towards reaffirming ones faith in humanity.

You see, the news have been getting everyone afraid of hobos as there has been a rash of burglaries being attributed to them. When a burglary occurs at the Kittredge residence, all evidence points to Will the hobo as the prime suspect. However, Kit, and her friends Ruthie and Stirling, has a different idea. She puts her reporting talents to the test as she gathers evidence and uses everything at her disposal to come up with another scenario.

The story plays out in the way you would expect for an upbeat family film, but the predictable conclusion does not hurt the film. In fact, one could argue that the ending reinforces the strengths of the film. This is a film that wants you to leave with a smile on your face and perhaps a tear in your eye. This is, essentially, a fantasy that depicts a bygone era through the eyes of a young girl, meaning this is not going to be a downer.

Kit Kittredge: An American Girl is an interesting film. It is a light-hearted film that deals primarily with the never-say-die spirit of a young girl. Told from her point of view, the very serious, life-altering changes brought about by the Depression do not take on as dire a meaning as they would in a straight, adult-oriented drama. Still, they do take a toll on the youngster, but rather than dragging her down, they inspire her to work harder to achieve her goals.

This movie is quite enjoyable and provides more substance than I had any right to expect. There is a lot going on with regards to Depression, people having all sorts of money troubles, the things people were forced to do to get by, the social acceptance of the homeless community, and all that goes with it. Director Patricia Rozema does a fine job of balancing the serious with entertaining, keeping an eye on the target audience while providing at least a somewhat authentic experience.

Bottomline. Better than I was expecting. A touching story, plenty of real world relevance, and good performances all around raise this above the ordinary. It comes from the old school of film making, delivering a pure, good-hearted experience.



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