If it wanted to, Kit Kittredge: An American Girl could get away with childishness, told as it is from the point of a view of a young girl and adapted from a popular series of children’s books. But the film doesn’t have to stoop so low, delivering insight into the effects of the Great Depression with more thoughtfulness and sophistication than pabulum like Seabiscuit and Cinderella Man. A little girl with ambitions of becoming a reporter, Kit (Abigail Breslin) lives a privileged life in Cincinnati, Ohio in the ‘30s until the Depression finally comes knocking at her door, forcing her father to move to Chicago to look for work and her mother to take in borders in order to avoid foreclosure on their home, and what she does to save her family and community—one in the same, really—is an expression of American possibility and necessity that doesn’t hinge on cheap romanticization.
For a G-rated film, Kit Kittredge‘s profound insight into the breakdown of society and families during the Depression and the country’s subsequent rebirth is surprising. Wives wait for husbands that may never return, but a young boy’s decision to trick his mother into thinking his father has made contact with them is never maudlin; the scene earns the audience’s sympathy by deeply illustrating how the young are sometimes forced to take on adult roles in degraded societies. This insight is also suggested by the relationship between two traveling homeless children, the white Will (Max Thieriot) and the black Countee (Willow Smith), who ask Kit’s mother (a wonderful Julia Ormand) for work in exchange for food and whose camaraderie also alludes to the sexual exploitation children faced during the Depression and how people are sometimes unified across racial lines in times of crisis.
Tending to the minutiae of American cultural panic with an awareness and sensitivity hacks like Ron Howard are incapable of, Kit Kittredge frames whole scenes around its young characters grappling with social roles and the vernacular of their changing times, like the language hobos use to communicate with one another. Such is the subtle complexity of the film that little Ruthie (Madison Davenport), whose banker father is tied to the destitution of many of her friends’ parents, hopes to find a chalk drawing of a cat scrawled on the column outside her home, which denotes that the people who live inside are kind to hobos. Instead, she discovers a drawing of a fishbone, a sign that her family has “good garbage”—better than no drawing at all but not preferable to the goodwill a cat signifies.
Kit Kittredge is remarkable for the social consciousness its young characters evince, but the whole thing would feel dubious if Kit and her friends didn’t behave like real children. Kit clearly gets her good-heartedness from her mother, and though she is practically an activist for the hobo community, she is also dedicated to her self-preservation. At school, children are taunted for wearing clothes made from sacks of chicken feed, and when she learns that her father (Chris O’Donnell) has lost his automobile dealership, she worries that her mother will have to resort to selling eggs in order to make ends meet. That day comes, and though Kit puts up a fight, she comes to understand the reward of those eggs, and in the outfits her mother makes for the girl and her friends, the film acknowledges the strength of finding dignity in suffering.
Sadly, director Patricia Rozema (who directed the first three episodes of the awful HBO series Tell Me You Love Me) plies a nondescript style when the story’s sociological framework deserves a more elegant sense of reflection if not refinement. (That was Altman’s unique talent: staying true to the naturalness of the everyday while uncovering and relishing the poetry and mysteries of human life.) But even when the film begins flailing (literally so in an irritating Joan Cusack’s case) through a Depression-set Nancy Drew adventure, the story never loses sight of its social conviction, even connecting Kit’s fearsomeness to the heroes of youth fiction—from Robin Hood to the cow that jumped over the moon—and recognizing that hers is a high-wire show of moral exactitude every child should look up to.