From pinching pennies to saving the holidays—it’s all in Kit’s six-book series.
—American Girl Shop
“Even though the Great Depression was in full swing around the world, it still seemed far away where I lived.” Ah, how pleasant life might have been for a nine-year-old car salesman’s daughter in 1934’s Cincinnati! And yet, as soon as Kit (Abigail Breslin) voice-overs her diary entry, you just know she’s in trouble. Sure, she’s spunky, clever, and cute as all outdoors, what with her blond bob and freckles. Still, she is, as her movie and doll-line assert, Kit Kittredge: An American Girl, and so she’ll need to face up to her national history, embrace her responsibility, and learn a useful life lesson to boot.
All this makes Kit a worthy movie hero, especially for kids. Indeed, amid the summer’s actionated excess, her story offers mostly quieter appeals, with pert period costumes and a supporting cast of adults who range from stuffy to saccharine to eccentric. True, a few of these folks do ham it up, eyes rolling and hands fluttering, but at least they’re not throwing buildings or shooting laser beams.
Kit’s own ambitious are likewise charmingly terrestrial: she wants to be a reporter, and writes in her journal daily, noting details and constructing stories, believing earnestly that her perspective is not only unique but also valuable for readers of the Cincinnati Register. Though she’s rebuffed by cranky city editor Mr. Gibson (Wallace Shawn), Kit returns to the newspaper office again and again, hoping that each new story she submits will be the one to break through.
Her sense of urgency increases when, inevitably, her life is affected by the Depression. At first, her dad (Chris O’Donnell) assures her that their family is fine, though she sees her classmates reduced to selling eggs or wearing homemade clothing (Kit, of course, stands up for them at school, because she’s a good friend with a stable moral compass). But all Kit’s witty come-backing and foot-stomping can’t keep her dad’s business afloat, and soon enough, he’s headed to Chicago, believing that he’ll find work there and insisting that he’ll write Kit every week while he’s away. As her lip trembles at the thought of her world falling apart, Mr. Kittredge soothes her with a story about his own father’s advice: “Don’t let it beat you,” he says, no matter what the “it” might be: resist, outsmart, fight back.
It’s a lesson she takes to heart when she finds out her mother, Margaret (Julia Ormond), will be taking in boarders to supplement income dad’s not sending back from Chicago. At this point the film veers off from its concentration on the child’s perspective of a recognizable world into a less convincing view of oddballs who behave like children. Kit goes so far as to list their professions by way of introducing them, while the film shows them repeatedly acting out their lines of erstwhile work. Flirty dancer Miss Dooley (Jane Krakowski) wears short shorts and kicks up her legs in the back yard; mobile librarian Miss Bond (Joan Cusack) crashes her vehicle into the Kittredges’ picket fence more than once; and illusionist Mr. Berk (Stanley Tucci) practices tricks to keep the ladies entertained. Broadly drawn, such antics grant Kit a chance to jot down stories about what happens in a boarding house, but as narrative episodes, they’re hardly inspired.
In fact, the movie is most engaging when it leaves off the adults. This isn’t to say the adults don’t directly affect the kids’ experiences: surely, Kit’s absent dad is crucial to both her inveterate adventurousness and her occasional fearfulness, and it’s more tan a little poignant to see her and her friends grappling with very adult issues through emotional prisms that are not “grown-up,” not yet cynical or judgmental. Kit’s bullied classmate Stirling (Zach Mills) tries to protect his mother (Gleanne Hadley) from the truth of his father’s abandonment, and her best friend Ruthie (Madison Davenport) is made uncomfortable by the fact that her banker father embodies the problem of the failing economy for Kit’s and other families, foreclosing on their homes and leaving them bereft.
As the kids find a way to make sense of all this disorder, looking after one another, the film finds surer footing than when it’s watching the adults act out and look silly. And, like so many “American” girls attached to toys or young readers’ series, Kit does have a plot of her own, shaped by her parents’ but also more immediate and more heroic. But even as she heads into this potentially tedious realm (solving a string of robberies), Kit brings to bear her principled sensibility, insisting to the cops and neighbors who jump to conclusions that the culprit cannot be her new friend Will (Max Thieriot), a hobo boy who has not only introduced her to the strange and friendly hobo-town where he stays, but also to the film’s token black character, young Countee (Willow Smith).
Straight up adorable, Countee has a sad history (a dead dad) and abiding attachment to Will: they show up at the Kittredge house in search of work in order to eat, and refuse to take charity despite their obvious hunger. Immediately embraced by Kit (and her gracious mother, much to the horror of her teat-drinking lady friends), the hobo children wear raggedy clothes and boots with holes in them, but their smudged faces are also angelic. Because you know from the movie’s early moments that Kit is right about them and the law is wrong, her time-consuming efforts to solve the mystery are less than riveting.
And while Kit’s faith in her hobo friends helps make the film’s point about the dangers of prejudice and fear of people who are “different,” the film avoids noting how racism shapes classism (and vice versa), then and now. Endearing Countee is more a prop than a character here, as Will and Kit’s looking out for the smaller child indicates their fiber more than it tells you anything about Countee’s rail-riding or lost family. This story, left off-screen, seems a particularly “American” opportunity missed.