As the father of a two-year-old boy, I know Elmo, Spider-Man and SpongeBob, but I had never heard of the American Girl dolls. Apparently, they have quite a franchise going; they have books and DVDs and accessories. Each girl has a trademarked name and her own story, torn from the pages of history. They have frontier girls, American Indian girls, escaped slave girls, hippie girls, revolutionary girls and World War II girls. Kit Kittredge is the Depression-era girl. Making a movie about her sounds like a terrible idea—partly condescending, educational and grim. But Canadian director Rozema, who made the lightest of all the Jane Austen movies, Mansfield Park (1999), manages a careful balance of entertainment and realism. It could be a Shirley Temple movie for our current hard times.
The other key to the movie’s success is our adorable little Oscar nominee Abigail Breslin (Little Miss Sunshine) as 10-year-old Kit, who announces that she wants to be a reporter, even before she realizes that there’s a Depression on. The film is honest, yet sensitive, about how anyone, even those living in nice houses, can suddenly lose everything. The upper crust turn up their noses at those forced to sell eggs, wear feed sacks or fix fences in exchange for food, but Kit’s curiosity and heart allow her to make the best of it, even when her father (O’Donnell) is forced to leave Cincinnati to look for a job, and her mother (Ormond) is forced to take in boarders.
This ragtag collection (Stanley Tucci, Jane Krakowski, Glenne Headly and a typically hilarious Joan Cusack), as well as a couple of “hobo” helpers (Max Thieriot and Willow Smith), lead up to the big mystery: a stolen box of cash, inevitably blamed on the polite “hobos.” Rozema can’t resist having fun playing dress-up and showing off with the period costumes, but she juxtaposes the scenes of comfort with the eager details of the hobo culture, including their “jungle” and their system of written communication. The laughable ending cheats a bit, with everyone except Santa Claus turning up for Thanksgiving dinner, but it also leaves the bigger picture wide open. It’s depressing, but also hopeful in a stubborn, American kind of way.