KIT KITTREDGE: AN AMERICAN GIRL is a kid’s film, but one that resonates for adults as well, delving as it does into the harsh economic realities of Kit’s world. Based on one of the entries in the “An American Girl” series designed to teach history to modern kids by telling stories firmly set in times past, this particular story, set during the Great Depression could not be more timely. The struggles Kit and her family see and experience for themselves, the homeless population used as a scapegoat for the economic ills plaguing the country, home foreclosures becoming a common occurrence, and families suddenly finding themselves going from comfortable middle class to poverty, are a sobering mirror image of modern times.
Kit’s life as the story begins in May of 1932 is one that hasn’t been touched by the economic upheavals. The same can’t be said of her friends, one of whom loses her home as Kit looks on, and where kids not much older and some younger are on the streets willing to work for food. Her Uncle Hendrick (KennethWelsh) is less than sympathetic, blaming those in trouble for bringing it on themselves by living beyond their means, and excoriating President Roosevelt’s social welfare programs. His opinions are met with polite disagreement at the family table, where the family’s older brother is absent, deferring college in order to join the CCC, rebuilding public works and sending home money to his increasingly cash-strapped family. Father (Chris O’Donnell) has a car dealership that was thriving until recently, and mother (Julia Ormand) has been cutting every corner she can to keep the family living in their large, comfortable house.
Unfortunately, with jobs disappearing, no one is buying cars, and so Kit’s father soon joins the ranks of the unemployed, leaving like so many others, for a city bigger than Cincinnati to find work and then send for Kit and her mother to follow. In the meantime, Kit’s mother takes in a colorful assortment of boarders to keep the bank from repossessing the house, and Kit herself adjusts to the taunts of more affluent classmates as she worries about what tomorrow will bring all the while taking heart from her father’s admonition to not let anything beat her.
The social and economic pressures of the time are always in the forefront. The looming specter of losing everything is the constant undercurrent of Kit’s world and there is never a moment when she, or the audience, is unaware of how precarious her position is. The ramifications of her mother going into the egg business, often the last step before foreclosure by the bank, are heartbreakingly clear, but so is the determination of her mother to keep things going. It’s a mood echoed in the music of the time that makes up the soundtrack, “Ain’t We Got Fun” bouncing along with lyrics that tick off how little there is to be happy about in the material sense, but that manages to be upbeat anyway because there is nothing else to do except give way to gloom. Kit doesn’t. Rebounding from each new manifestation of poverty, and pursuing her dream of getting published in the local paper even after a less than welcoming response to her first submissions from its gruff editor (Wallace Shawn). She doesn’t give up, telling him off for dismissing her before reading her work, much to the delight of his minions. She also doesn’t give up when the local police, not to mention the local population, is all too ready to blame the hobos that work at her house for food, adolescent Will, a refugee from a family farm foreclosure in Texas, and his six-year-old charge, Countee, whose father died of the flu. She investigates the crimes, something that becomes more than just a moral crusade when the so-called hobo bandit strikes her own home.
Courage is the operative word for everyone in the film. The boarders plug along, some with better spirits than others. There’s the brave but fragile front put on by Kit’s classmate, Stirling (Zach Mills) and his ex-socialite mother (Glenne Headly) who wait vainly for word from the father and husband who left for New York in search of work. The grandiloquent traveling magician (Stanley Tucci) puts on impromptu shows in the living room, the dance instructor (Jane Krakowski as the perfect bubbly incarnation of the 30s dame with a heart of gold) practices in the backyard to lift spirits, and the loopy mobile librarian (Joan Cusak in another wondrously eccentric turn) doles out books like Robin Hood, that offer escapism and an uplifting message. Kit’s visit to a hobo jungle, the encampment where everyone from ex-stockbrokers to families with nowhere else to go have settled just out of town, shows her people at their lowest economically, but also at their best , sharing what they have and watching out for one another. It’s a journey that also gives her a lesson in what sells newspapers, which has its own modern implications.
Breslin is spunky, which the role requires, but she also brings a strong sense of resilience to Kit, while never losing Kit’s essential vulnerability as a kid who has no control over what is happening to her. The success of a film with such a dark premise rests with her ability to be both a cockeyed optimist while still registering the emotional blows her character takes. She is nothing short of dazzling in accomplishing both. Of equal note is director Patricia Rozema, who, like her heroine, she never allows the film to wallow in the sadness of these people’s lives. Instead she is sensitive to it, never condescending to the roiling emotional burden each has, be they adult or child, she emphasizes the matter-of-factness of how they cope, getting on from day to day putting the best face on things and seeing complaining as a waste of time and energy. In that sense, she’s made a film that is emotionally complex as well as, and I don’t use this word lightly, inspirational.
KIT KITTREDGE: AN AMERICAN GIRL is a tearjerker but one that brings as many tears of joy as of pathos. Though aimed at kids, who may find some of the details of Kit’s life all too worrisome in contemporary ways, excellent performances, an intelligent script, rooted in the 30s but timeless in its themes, make it an adventure and a delight, for all ages.