Monday, November 17, 2008
Kit Kittredge: An American Girl -- optimism, depression and prejudice
Director: Patricia Rozema, 2008.
I have never read an American Girl book. Before watching this movie I could not tell the difference between Kit, Ruthie, Kaya, Britney, Jojo or whoever! If I did not have a 10 year-old girl, I probably would not have watched this movie. And what a pleasure I would have missed. I came to Kit Kittredge with little expectation, thinking it to be a typical kid's movie. Boy, was I wrong. This is an uplifting movie that deals with tough issues in a deep and honest manner.
Set in 1934, Kit is a typical 10 year-old girl living in a middle-class family in Cincinnati Ohio. But this is slap dab in the middle of the Great Depression, with foreclosures all around, and people being forced into unemployment and poverty. With the global economic meltdown of the last two months, this should sound very familiar.
At first Kit just wants to enjoy her friends, her tree-house and her dream to be reporter. But slowly the depression affects her. She sees friends lose their homes. She sees kids at school bully and humiliate those impacted. But until it hits home, she is still insulated. When she sees her dad, a car salesman (Chris O'Donnell), at a soup kitchen, her world is rocked. As he leaves for Chicago and the hopes of a job, her mom Margaret is forced to take in boarders to make ends meet. Kit sacrifices her room to a paying lodger.
The lodgers that come to Kit's home are a strange bunch. There's the mom with son (Kit's friend), whose husband has also left the state looking for work. She is humbled but still considers herself better than the hobos who live in shanty towns and travel the country jumping trains. Alongside her is the dance instructor who is desperately looking for a husband, any husband, and any man with a pulse will do. Throw in a magician and a mobile librarian who can barely drive and you have a houseful of odd ducks.
After painting the picture of the prevalent poverty of the era, Kit Kittredge becomes a mystery story with a moral message. A rash of thefts appears to be committed by a hobo, the scapegoat of choice. When it appears that the hobo befriended by Kit may be the culprit, Kit and her friends set out to solve the mystery.
One thing that makes Kit Kittredge a better than average kids' movie is the acting talent on display. Little Miss Sunshine's Abigail Breslin gives another strong performance in the central role as Kit, and is an effective hub for those around her. Julia Ormond is a great foil as the ever optimistic mom in the midst of such painful circumstances. This his lady could make lemonade from pre-squeezed lemons! Stanley Tucci appears as the magician and the lisping Wallace Shawn (Vizzini in The Princess Bride) plays Mr. Gibson, the crusty newspaper editor. But Joan Cusack steals the comic scenes as Miss Bond, the librarian. Cusack is an accomplished actor who can play comedy or serious roles with poise. (Who can forget her role in Arlington Road as the sugary sweet but chillingly scary next-door neighbor!) Max Thierot, too, gives a believable performance as Will, one of the two friendly hobos at the center of the mystery plot.
Kit Kittredge is a child's eye view of the great depression and its personal impact. As such it lays bare the tragedy of poverty and social injustice. It can hit almost anyone. Middle class today, on the street tomorrow. When or if this happens, will we swallow our pride and do what it takes to survive? Or will we retain our pride and pretend that we are still middle class and not needing help?
Margaret Kittredge displays an almost inauthentic optimism throughout. But it is more her adaptability that is highlighted. When confronted with crisis upon crisis, she simply buckles down and draws upon hidden reserves, never letting her smile fade. Surely this is what it means for the joy of the Lord to be your strength (Neh. 8:10). Though she is not shown to be a Christian, Margaret's attitude in dire times is a strong example to those of us who follow Jesus. In similar misfortunes, we should not complain, but rather maintain a thankful spirit with a humble heart. There is always someone worse off than us, as there were in this film.
Kit Kittredge also portrays the prejudice that is often deep in the human heart. When calamity strikes, we often seek to shift the blame. The scapegoat bears the brunt of our prejudices. In the film, all hobos were viewed with suspicion as criminals, low-life to be avoided, despite the lack of evidence. They were pre-judged. But Kit saw beyond the mists of bigotry, and looked for the goodness in Will, her hobo friend. We must be diligent to avoid prejudice in our own life, whether it seeks to raise its head in racial, social, sexual or other forms. Instead, we must seek to live like Kit seeking the good in those around us. Better yet, we should live like Jesus, who loved and accepted all, especially the marginalized of society who were looked down upon by the proud and haughty. We can and must remove the cancer of prejudice before its damage becomes too deeply rooted.
All this in a simple, yet gently thoughtful, kids' movie. This one is worth watching with your children just for the discussion opportunities afterwards. But if you do, keep some tissues handy; I found myself bawling like a baby at the sentimental ending.
Copyright ©2008, Martin Baggs
at 7:00 AM