Wednesday, July 2, 2008
"Kit Kittredge:" An American Deception
My two little girls, now in college, used to read those American Girl books with their white shiny covers featuring snapshots of 'tweens in various decades of American history. I never bought my daughters the overpriced collector's dolls, dressed in period costumes, though the one who accompanied me tonight to a screening of "Kit Kittredge: An American Girl" revealed to me my cruelty in the face of her friends' displays.
Kit (Abigail Breslin) and her parents plunge from upper-crust existence into poverty in 1934 when the depression busts the dad's (Chris O'Donnell) car dealership and forces him to leave their Cincinnati home to find work in Chicago. To pay the mortgage, Mom (Julia Ormond) takes in an assortment of boarders, including a magician, husband-hungry dance instructor, mobile librarian and a down-and-out classmate of Kit's, with his fussy mom. She takes pity on a teen and his quite-young sidekick who live in the community's "Hobo Jungle" by the railroad tracks. This motley crew, plus a few plucky friends of Kit's, populate a film punctuated by thievery, deception and the kids' miraculous solving of the who-done-it. It's no spoiler to say the film's loose ends get neatly tied in a single scene at the end.
Director Patricia Rozema has pulled together some sweetly evocative sets, costumes and scenes (the movie was shot in Toronto), though it's easy for adults to spot several distracting anachronisms that the target audience will miss. Much more disturbing, however, are some of the messages implicit in the movie.
First off, by 1934, unemployment had leveled off, after a peak of almost 25% the year before. That's one out of four otherwise employable adults out of work, at the depression's worst. The movie implies that few held onto their jobs, and that those who did--including the banker who puts foreclosure signs in Kit's neighborhood front lawns--became snickering denigrators of those whose fortunes were lost. A soup kitchen scene attempts to show a kinder side, though we have no clue who sponsors it, and when Kit's school class is given an assignment to volunteer there one night, she's shocked by the variety of clientèle. An aside: while the depression was certainly devastating, FDR's New Deal attempts to end it exacerbated the damage and hampered the recovery (as well-documented by Amity Shlaes in The Forgotten Man).
A second inaccuracy is the complete lack of any type of religious reference, even as Americans turned to religion as solace in a difficult time. There's not even a glimpse of a church during a street scene, and not a single character ever murmurs even a word that could be taken as a thought toward the transcendental. By calling Kit "An American Girl," and placing her in Cincinnati, one might expect at least a passing nod to a centerpiece of life at the time.
In addition, the hobo encampment is shown via Kit's journalistic "investigation" to be a place of respectable people behaving only with honesty and goodwill. Perhaps at the time such upstanding tent cities existed, but the implication for modern viewers is that the homeless sleeping in shop doorways or populating cardboard lean-tos under freeways are somehow equivalent and honorable--rather than being mentally ill or alcoholics spurning shelters and assistance programs available to them. This is a misleading message for youngsters, almost the opposite of the "don't talk to strangers" safety rules we want them to internalize.
But this isn't a history lesson, it's a 9-year-old girl's perspective, and the film does address the hurt of her father's absence, and the indignities she turns into fun, in true Pollyanna style. There's also a touch of Nancy Drew as Kit, hoping to hit print in the Cincinnati Register, uses her field notes about crimes to help her figure out, far too easily, what the law enforcement offices of several cities can't. On the surface, it's a clean, family-oriented and enjoyable plot, but those deceptive underlying lessons are troubling.
And it's a bit ironic that a movie about poverty and the Great Depression is being hyped with so much expensive stuff for little fans to buy. I'm kinda glad my two girls only got the books.