What happens to a happy-go-lucky ten-year-old girl when the bottom falls out of her world? When she looks around to see that things are changing for the worse all around her? If she’s an “American Girl”, she follows the advice of her father, “Kit, don’t let it beat you”. That’s the motto of Kit Kittredge (Abigail Breslin), the heroine of the first “American Girl” film to hit the big screen. Previous films based on Samantha, Molly, and Felicity debuted on TV, but this first film to hit the silver screen may be paving the way for more “American Girl” films to open at cinemas.Kit’s family lives in a picturesque middle class suburb of Cincinnati, where she has a club in her treehouse with her friends, Ruthie Smithens (Madison Davenport) and Stirling Howard (Zach Mills). Kit’s father (Chris O’Donnell ) owns a car dealership and her mother (Julia Ormond) is a stay-at-home mother. Her older brother, whom we never see, has already left home to join the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) forgoing college to help out. Adults may see the handwriting on the wall when hobos Will Shepherd (Max Thierot) and Countee (Willow Smith) arrive at the Kittredge home willing to “work for food”, but Kit and her friends don’t realize something is amiss until her next door neighbor’s home is foreclosed, and they see them thrown out on the street. She is stunned to discover that she too is facing poverty when during a school service project, she sees her father eating at the local soup kitchen. He loses the car dealership and leaves for Chicago in search of work. Kit’s mother takes in a motley assortment of boarders to make ends meet, and Kit is moved out of her pretty bedroom into the attic.
Kit, an avid writer, finds solace by reporting on events around her, from the wallet theft she witnesses in town, to the hobo camp by the railroad tracks, which she visits in an effort to understand why so many people are in dire straights. She has to get to the bottom of the mystery called “the Depression”, and tries to offer her perspective in her first submission to the Cincinnati Register, announcing to the gruff editor, Mr. Gibson (Wallace Shaun), “I want to be in print!” Kit’s story on the hobo camp is roundly rebuffed as too controversial; public opinion still points fingers at the hobos as lazy, undeserving troublemakers. Kit knows in her heart that her friends Will and Countee are honest, and soon she has to use her best investigative journalism skills to prove this.
Authentic costumes, sets, and excellent casting make this period film work, the story line and characters are engaging if stereotyped, and the packed house on opening day gave the film a hearty round of applause. The house lights revealed tweens dressed up, and carrying their American Girl dolls. This mother-daughter event was obviously the highlight of their summer. One mother shared her approval of the “good family values” she saw reflected in the film. Her eleven-year-old daughter sometimes asks difficult questions about some of the music she hears, but with an American Girl movie, she said, “a mom can just enjoy the film”.
Kit is respectful to authority figures like her teachers and her parents, yet shows just enough spunk not to back down to Mr. Gibson’s growling, nor be intimidated at some of her rougher tenants. The film’s themes of kindness to the poor, the importance of loyalty, and the fact that pain of separation of families is worse than economic troubles, warm the heart of this mother of three girls. The only thing missing was in the final scene at the Thanksgiving table: though a spirit of gratitude was apparent, no one said grace. The conservative families I saw shopping at the American Girl store in New York would have approved heartily if a simple prayer was said. Maybe next time. Meanwhile, this movie contained nothing offensive, and difficult themes were dealt with gently. It is enthusiastically recommended for all audiences; even boys should give this charming film a chance.