Rightwing Film Geek

“I hate spunk”

KIT KITTREDGE: AN AMERICAN GIRL (Patricia Rozema, USA, 2008) — 8

One measure of the strength of KIT KITTREDGE is that I never once guessed that it was based on a doll and could thus in principle have been as easily dismissed as a marketing exercise a la THE MIGHTY MORPHIN POWER RANGERS.™ Since I am neither a 10-year-old-girl nor the father of one, the “American Girl” series of dolls was something that I first learned about researching to write this review. I’d have sworn blind this movie was based on some new Young Adult literature series, or the equivalent from the 1930s.

Another measure is that I should not like KIT KITTREDGE at all, given how specific it is in terms of sensibility — not only am I am not one now, but I have never been a 10-year-old girl; when I was a 10-year-old boy, you couldn’t have paid me to read “girl books” in case I catch coodies or something (“Encyclopedia Brown” was my favorite); I have no 10-year-old daughter to share a Daddy’s Movie Day with; I generally despise “chick flicks” (see, SEX AND THE CITY; or rather, I didn’t) or anything that strikes me as sentimental (see, SON OF RAMBOW). But KIT KITTREDGE won me over very quickly because Kit herself is so appealing and lovable as a character and Abigail Breslin perfectly embodies her — plucky without being obnoxious, as matter-of-fact as a child who hasn’t yet learned what a heartbreaker the world can be because she is herself still innocent and gentle-spirited. And since your humble writer is a curmudgeon who sympathizes utterly with Mr. Grant’s hatred of Mary’s character and who once (really and truly) said to a colleague, “everyone’s got a right to be perky, but you abuse the privilege” — that’s saying something.

The opening montage shows the titular heroine collects Amelia Earhardt and Eleanor Roosevelt clippings (were there any of Katharine Hepburn?); she wants to be a journalist herself and so marches down to the Cincinnati paper’s city desk to give them her Great Story on the Chicago World’s Fair (I saw a budding Camille Paglia … or maybe Mary Richards). She begins as an upper-middle-class girl, but the film follows her through a year of the Depression, beginning as something that affects others, but then affects her. Her daddy has to leave for Chicago to get a job (after a shocking scene of recognition), and her mother has to take in boarders. One of the most effective things about KIT KITTREDGE, in fact, is the way the parents shield the precariousness of the family’s condition from Kit for so long, giving what might seem like hairpin plot turns a certain logic, looking back in retrospect. The idyll of Kit’s girls club broken up, she makes new friends based on the boarders and the hobos who hire themselves out for food. A crime takes place that hits close to home and Kit Kittredge, Girl Detective, has to figure it all out. She’s the sort of assertive pre-feminist girl that’s the ideal protagonist for this sort of movie — fundamentally an adventure fantasy about a plucky girl, with some (but not too much) edge, difficulty, topicality and moral worth. There’s no po-mo winks, congratulations to the audience for being born later, or anachronistic snarkiness.

The “not too much” part rubbed raw the one Rotten Tomatoes “top critic” not to like KIT KITTREDGE — Stephen Hunter of The Washington Post. As I said, the film is set during the Depression and there’s a hobo camp not too far from where the titular character lives, and Hunter complained that it was all too sanitized:

there’s something quietly appalling about a self-consciously ‘colorful’ Depression … [with] a hobo jungle [that is] not a cesspool for despairing, desperate men on the road, hunted by cops and railroad bulls, full of self-loathing and therefore truly dangerous …

Hunter is not wrong in his description, though his review is generally a comedy of errors: the Reductio ad Stalinum was a hoot; and the supporting characters are anything but “bland,” if anything, they could be criticized as too one-note “quirky” (Stanley Tucci as “magical”; Joan Cusack as “dotty”; Jane Krakowski as G-rated “trampy”).

But y’know what … I don’t think a child’s adventure movie should have “truly dangerous” characters. In a kid’s movie, some “sanitization” is essential: a kid’s movie set in the Depression  neither is nor should be GRAPES OF WRATH, LOS OLVIDADOS or THEY MADE ME A CRIMINAL. KIT KITTREDGE has a very narrow line to walk, but it does so well-nigh perfectly. On the one hand, the villains need to scare a 10-year-old, but cannot do so not too much. The way the film does this is that once the real villains come along in the third act, they are a bit buffoonish and semi-comical to an adult. And if we were looking for a serious “thriller” or a serious Depression movie, then yes, this would be the awful mistake Hunter says it is. But wasn’t it obvious what sort of movie this is — a sweet, sentimental, fairly-predictable fantasy of detective-lit?

Alfred Hitchcock once said he saw his task to be giving audience “beneficial shocks.” That applies in spades to children — it’s fun to be “scared”; violating to be scared. And I’d like to think even the most jaded adult critic is enough in touch with what he liked as a child to be able to judge a child’s movie on the right grounds. I just took a break from writing this review to look back and read a couple of the Encyclopedia Brown books I loved as a boy. To the 42-year-old man whose #1 film for the year is 4 MONTHS, 3 WEEKS, 2 DAYS — yes, they were formulaic (always six pages, with the vital clue presented); yes, they had unthreatening villains (Bugs Meany and Wilfrid Wiggins were mostly bluster); and yes, they were set in an impossibly idyllic Idaville (Chief Brown’s officer never shot anyone or have to shoot one). But I could still see what attracted me to them when I was that age — their intellectual puzzles, the confidence that the clue WAS there, the assurance that Encyclopedia wouldn’t get his throat slashed, the hyper-educated boy as hero, the (apparent) adventure. The best kid’s-lit always has dark undercurrents (and are often extremely, even Grimmly, moralistic), but they are *under*currents and shouldn’t become too rapid. Criticizing ENCYCLOPEDIA BROWN, AN AMERICAN GIRL DETECTIVE for insufficient darkness just seems churlish.

The highest praise I can give KIT KITTREDGE is that I liked it at all. It’s enjoyable and very effective, but to a 10-year-old girl, it’d probably be the best movie she’d ever seen. In fact, and maybe this actually IS the highest praise I can give, the film actually made me wish I had a 10-year-old daughter to share Daddy’s Movie Day with. In the mid-90s, Siskel & Ebert tried to push Cuaron’s G-rated, live-action girl’s film A LITTLE PRINCESS through two (failed) attempts at box-office success. They said words to the effect of “people say of Hollywood ‘they never make good family films.’ But when they actually vote with their dollars at the box office, G-rated family films flop, unless they’re Disney cartoons.” Two weeks in wide release, KIT KITTREDGE isn’t doing too well either and the lesson may be learned again. If you’re a Christian parent and have a daughter of the right age, you have almost a duty, and not just to her, to take her to see KIT KITTREDGE. It’s not a religious film at all, but it is the sort of family-friendly secular entertainment we say we want. The film is, as Ty Burr put it in the Boston Globe, “counterprogramming to our modern kid culture, a safe haven from booty-calls and belly-shirts.”

July 15, 2008 - Posted by | Patricia Rozema, Stephen Hunter

4 Comments »

  1. “In a kid’s movie, some “sanitization” is essential: a kid’s movie set in the Depression neither is nor should be GRAPES OF WRATH, LOS OLVIDADOS or THEY MADE ME A CRIMINAL. KIT KITTREDGE has a very narrow line to walk, but it does so well-nigh perfectly.”

    I, personally, would love to see Abigail Breslin in a remake of I AM A FUGITIVE FROM A CHAIN GANG.

    You’re so right on with this review that I really have little to add, only to say that more of this and less of Miley Cyrus and the other supposed polestars of children’s entertainment would do us all some good. BTW, did you realize Miley’s real name is “Destiny”? Can we get an over/under in Vegas on her first visit to rehab now?

    Comment by G-Money | July 15, 2008 | Reply

  2. Thanks for the review. We’re definitely planning to take our kids to see this.

    Comment by Jay Anderson | July 15, 2008 | Reply

  3. Do you think it’s too much for an almost-4 year old? I’m guessing the almost-7 year old would really enjoy it, as she’s enjoyed others I would put in the same age bracket (Princess Bride is her very favorite movie, and she enjoyed reading The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe–but hasn’t seen the movie).

    Thanks in advance!

    Comment by Heather Price | July 17, 2008 | Reply

  4. There’s nothing in the film that says “no.”

    But there is the much more general consideration of whether she’s capable of watching a feature-length movie at a single sitting AT ALL — attention-span, ability to follow narrative, restlessness with a single activity, public demeanor. If she can watch 100 minutes straight through at home, I’d go for it. If not, not.

    Comment by vjmorton | July 18, 2008 | Reply


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