Wednesday, July 9, 2008

New Deal, New Doll

Watching Kit Kittredge: An American Girl, I thought about the irony of a movie about families struggling during the Great Depression created as a marketing ploy for a line of dolls for preteen girls.

But in a way, it’s fitting: Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, mentioned in passing in this family-friendly film, was conceived as a way of saving capitalism from threats from the increasingly militant Left. And what better celebration of capitalism than a product tie-in for dolls that cost $90 each, a price that puts them out of reach for struggling families like the ones depicted in this movie? God Bless America!

American Girl, now owned by Mattel, is no ordinary brand of doll, but a socially conscious collection meant to represent particular periods of American history — from the Revolutionary era to the 20th century — with appropriate costumes and accompanying storybooks that depict issues such as poverty, racism, immigration and child labor. Representing the Depression-afflicted 1934 is Kit Kittredge, a plucky ten-year-old from Cincinnati whose family falls on hard times when her father loses his job. The movie based on her story — the fourth American Girl movie, but the first to receive a theatrical release — stars a blonded-up Abigail Breslin, the Oscar-nominated young actress from Little Miss Sunshine.

Kit enjoys a comfortable life with her mother (Julia Ormond) and father (Chris O’Donnell), a car dealer. An inquisitive and enterprising child, she writes human-interest stories and wants nothing more than to be a “real reporter” (God help her). She tries to get published by the fictional Cincinnati Register, whose irascible editor (Wallace Shawn) dismisses her story about the Chicago World’s Fair as old news and the work of a ten-year-old, which it is.

Trouble begins to befall Kit’s friends and neighbors. Some of them lose their homes and are reduced to raising chickens and eating in soup kitchens. A new kind of minority — hoboes — begins appearing on doorsteps asking to work for food, and raising suspicions in the well-heeled community. All this arouses Kit’s concern, but the Depression doesn’t really hit home until she spots her own father eating at a soup kitchen. To Kit’s distress, Dad goes off to Chicago to look for work, and her mother is forced to take in boarders to pay the mortgage. There is a traveling magician (Stanley Tucci); a spinsterish mobile librarian (Joan Cusack); a husband-hungry dance instructor (Jane Krakowski). The boarders, an eccentric lot, provide some wan amusement, though not nearly as much as you might hope.

The poignancy of the situation is occasionally affecting, particularly the scene introducing Kit’s basset hound, Grace, whom Kit first encounters on a street corner with a hand-lettered sign around her neck that reads, “Can’t feed anymore.” Kit’s mom, bless her heart, allows Kit to bring the sad-eyed dog home.

A Huck Finn-like hobo named Will (Max Theriot) and his younger black sidekick Countee (Willow Smith), become trusted handymen around the Kittredge household. When Will is suspected in a string of burglaries, Kit’s investigative instincts are aroused. In Nancy Drew fashion, she and her friends Ruthie (Madison Davenport) and Stirling (Zach Mills) sleuth out the improbable, Rube Goldberg-like solution to the crime.

During her investigation, Kit gets acquainted with the colorful itinerants who inhabit the hobo jungle where Will and Countee live. And at the same time, she finds a subject she can sell to the cranky Register editor: a portrait of the noble denizens of the hobo camp, illustrated by her own photographs. She is quite the prodigy, too, producing with her little box camera portraits worthy of Dorothea Lange.

Let’s be honest: this is not The Grapes of Wrath. The movie has an artificial, made-for-television look (it was produced by HBO), and its hobos, though portrayed with commendable sympathy, are the cleanest-looking bunch of tramps imaginable. And Breslin, so natural and adorable in Little Miss Sunshine, has become a grimly serious actress without much charm. In this movie, she is called upon to do little more than whine.

The movie has its heart in the right place, and it’s surprisingly timely as well, now that we are headed for another depression. Doll advertisement though it is, Kit Kittredge should get points for its message of tolerance and social justice, and for giving young girls something humane to look at during the season of Iron Man, The Hulk, Indiana Jones and other mechanical, boy-centric fodder.

A slightly different version of this appeared in the Cleveland Free Times.

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