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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

Kit Kittredge: An American Girl (review)

American Ideals

I hate that this is so astonishing that it’s worth mentioning, but it is: Almost every name in the opening credits of Kit Kittredge: An American Girl is female. The director, Patricia Rozema (who made the 1999 Mansfield Park); the screenwriter, Ann Peacock (The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe), working from stories by Valerie Tripp; the producers, much of the creative team… It’s almost a precise reversal of what we typically see, which is mostly male names with a spattering of women among them. Someday this will not be noteworthy, but we’re not at the day yet, and so this is kind of wonderful to see.
Nor are we at the day where we can let it pass without noting that this entirely delightful movie features a little girl as its protagonist. Which means, alas, that it will probably be mostly little girls, hauling along their American Girl dolls, who will go see it. And that should not be. There’s no reason why, if little girls are perfectly capable of enjoying the adventures of Harry Potter, little boys shouldn’t be capable of enjoying the adventures of Kit Kittredge… and I hope parents will expose their sons to this, because they might learn a few things about perseverance, friendship, kindness, and generosity. And we can never, even as adults, get too much of that brand of warm gentleness.

Abigail Breslin (Definitely, Maybe, Little Miss Sunshine) is spunky and adorable here, though not in that annoying, overly precocious way of sitcom kids, as Kit, a nine-year-old living in Cincinnati in the early 1930s, just as the Great Depression is really revving up. The privations of the larger world don’t impinge much on her little realm, which encompasses school and her treehouse and her grand desire to be a newspaper journalist. Until it does, when her beloved father’s (Chris O’Donnell: The Company, Kinsey) car dealership goes under and he is forced to leave town to look for work, and Kit and her mother (Julia Ormond: I Know Who Killed Me, Animal Farm) are compelled to take paying lodgers into their large and rambling home just to pay to the mortgage.

And so what starts out as a semi-serious little adventure tale morphs gradually into sweet comedy, as the array of borders unfolds into a comic ensemble that includes Joan Cusack’s (Martian Child, Chicken Little) librarian, Stanley Tucci’s (The Devil Wears Prada, Robots) stage magician, and others. In fact, by the end, I’m tempted to call the whole shebang practically Little Rascals-esque, as Kit and her friends investigate the mystery of the “hobo crime spree” that has been dogging Cincinnati and the surrounding area. I wouldn’t have predicted that the charming and low-key dramedy of the open segment of the film would have evolved into the silly chases of the end, but it’s not an unpleasant road to have gone down. Small children will certainly be more enthralled than adults, but it’s no chore at all to bear witness to Kit’s resourcefulness and ingenuity, and I even laughed more than once (don’t tell anyone).

Alas that some children — and adults — may feel the sting of recognition in more ways than one here, as family homes get foreclosed upon and belts tighten more than comfort will grant. Who’d have thought that stories of the Great Depression would feel actually relevant and pertinent again? But there’s no question that the universality of Kit Kittredge’s compassion and easygoing highmindedness is a soothing balm to counter its underlying harshness, and that the movie leaves us feeling not downhearted to see history repeating itself, but uplifted to see that even the smallest among us are undeterred from remaining true to our ideals even when times are tough.

MPAA: rated G

viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics

official site | IMDb
  • Shadowen

    I haven’t seen the movie–I should add yet, after your review–but your comment about how if girls can read/see Harry Potter (and presumably learn about “masculine” virtues like bravery and loyalty), then boys should be able to watch this (and learn about “feminine” virtues like generosity and kindness), with the implied sort-of “unisex” values of friendship and perseverance shared between the two…

    Well, I like it. I dunno. The implications are kinda beautiful. Or am I reading too much into it?

  • MaryAnn

    Generosity and kindness are feminine?

    We’re all doomed.

  • Alma Sakic

    haha I love you, MaryAnn…I was just thinking the same thing. You are so right about that too. I had an English class a year ago in college and we had to read a story with a female protagonist in the ’70’s era (pre-feminism). And then we had to go around the room and each say what we thought of it. One guy was like, “I dunno, I can’t relate to this…this is chick stuff,” or something to that tune. I remember being really annoyed. Women have been forced to empathize and identify with men’s (often sexist)struggles in literature, music, and film for centuries, because we had little to no female representation. I don’t think mens’ penises are going to fall off if they, god forbid, identify for once with a girl. I’m glad you brought that up.

  • Mimi

    AMEN amen amen. God, the number of times I heard guys all but invoke cooties when the “Sex and the City” movie came up… Fine, if you don’t want to see it because it’s bad (couldn’t say; haven’t seen it myself) — but I think we know what the problem was… all those pesky women and their pesky woman-centered storylines and their pesky woman relationships. Ew! Cooties!

    You’ve just made me want to go watch “An American Girl.”

  • Robert M.

    My first experience with American Girls was as a relentlessly-merchandised pyramid scheme practiced by the parents of girls in my elementary school. As I got older, I found out that they do a fair bit to support not only feminist political causes, but LGBT interests, as well… so I forgave them. A little bit.

    Abigail Breslin as the headline on the movie poster made me do a double-take, and now Maryanne made me think again. I still doubt I’ll see this in theaters–Get Smart, Wanted, and Wall-E just about kill my entertainment budget for this month–but I’ll catch it on Netflix when it’s released.

  • Shadowen

    Please note the quotation marks around “masculine” and “feminine”. :p

  • MaryAnn

    I know *you* didn’t mean that, Shadowen, but unfortunately I think you’re right to suggest that many people do attribute certain values exclusively or primarily to one gender over the other.

  • Dan Duquette

    I like to attribute values such as “icky” and “stupid” primarily to men. But that’s just me!

    I’d also like to attribute “Adorable” to this film, and “Disgraceful” to gas prices because I had to drive a great distance just to see this one.

    Was this flagged as limited release? Or is my area just that “masculine” that they don’t even want to play movies that don’t have excessive amounts of blood, boobs, and/or action?

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