Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Kit Kittredge: An American Girl

Posted By on Wed, Jul 2, 2008 at 12:00 AM

Rated G for girl, Kit Kittredge is as quick-witted and compassionate as its 10-year-old heroine, played by Abigail Breslin, the current cinematic embodiment of spunky intelligence. In May of 1934, Kit is aware that the Great Depression is a rising flood spreading across the country, but doesn't feel the impact until it breaches the levees built around solidly middle-class lives like her own. The changes are swift, and the effects devastating.

One minute, Kit's mother Margaret (Julia Ormond) is throwing a garden party, her father Jack (Chris O'Donnell) is overseeing Kittredge Fine Automobiles, and the budding reporter is visiting The Cincinnati Register trying to get a byline. The next, her father's business collapses and he hits the road looking for work, leaving Kit and her mother to become servants in their own home after a desperate Margaret decides to turn their arts and crafts showplace into a boarding house for transients and the displaced.

The first theatrical film to be made from an American Girl character — the wildly popular line of high-end dolls with accompanying books detailing their lives in different historical periods (from colonial times to the 1970s) — Kit Kittredge is at once educational and earnest. Screenwriter Ann Peacock has adapted the plucky Kit's tale with an eye toward verisimilitude (soup kitchens and feed-sack dresses) softened by optimism, while director Patricia Rozema grounds the story with naturalistic camerawork and sharp social observations that echo the current foreclosure crisis.

Within this commercial enterprise (reproductions of Kit's typewriter and homemade scooter are just a few of the doll's accessories), Rozema makes the impromptu communities of hobo camps and boarding houses into models of cooperative anti-materialism, the antithesis of American acquisitiveness and suburban isolation.

The Canadian filmmaker (I've Heard the Mermaids Singing, Mansfield Park) skillfully interweaves a clever mystery and raucous humor — much of it provided by Stanley Tucci's itinerant trickster and Joan Cusack's bumbling mobile librarian — to create the historical drama, and allows the spirited, magnanimous and imaginative Kit to guide the action.

As a child's eye view of the Depression, Kit Kittredge isn't as incisive or powerful as Steven Soderbergh's overlooked second film, King of the Hill (1993). While Kit makes hobos the universal scapegoat, King portrays the moral erosion of otherwise upstanding individuals.

But this living doll opts to walk on the sunny side of the street, and despite Kit's marketable origin, her rose-colored glasses aren't for sale.

Serena Donadoni writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail her at letters@metrotimes.com.

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