To my 10-year-old daughter, the term “American Girl” means “that store my meanie of a mom—unlike all the other, higher-quality moms—won’t let me go near.” While we’re on the defensive, why should I? She hates dolls, and I—creeped out by row upon row of homogenized mannequins with staring Stepford Wife eyes and designer threads—get nauseous within 50 feet of that posh emporium, which peddles multiculti feminism with an outrageous price tag.
Such are the cultural contradictions of corporate capitalism: As Disney is to tales of plucky small-town proles hurdling adversity through hard work and decency, so the American Girl franchise, a subsidiary of that mom-and-pop outfit Mattel, is to our nation of happy rainbow families, celebrating our shared values while honoring our differences. Could be worse, I guess, but with their sturdy ethnic heroines—African-American, Native American, and every other American you can think of—overcoming poverty and discrimination, the American Girl books are as predictable as they are proto-feminist and inclusive.
A trial balloon sent up to test the ether for extending the franchise, Kit Kittredge: An American Girl is no exception. Based on several American Girl stories about a 1930s cub reporter in Cincinnati, this dull theatrical debut especially disappoints because I’m usually fond of square, sepia-toned, period-costumed kids’ movies (like Fly Away Home) that go nowhere at the box office. This one could go somewhere: As the opening weekend of Sex and the City showed, gee whiz, there’s a distaff market out there, so why not tap the little ones?
With Julia Roberts as executive producer, and Mattel exec Ellen L. Brothers co-producing, Kit Kittredge has some heavy female muscle behind it, and they hired what ought to have been a class-act creative team. Written by Ann Peacock (The Chronicles of Narnia) and directed by Canadian indie filmmaker Patricia Rozema, the movie stars Little Miss Sunshine‘s Abigail Breslin as Kit, a feisty, can-do Midwesterner from a comfortable family who’s covered every surface of her bedroom with pictures of role models Eleanor Roosevelt and Amelia Earhart. Kit is a girl reporter in search of a subject; one quickly presents itself in the form of the Great Depression, which here falls on rich and poor alike, as Kit discovers when—a touch improbably—she bumps into her car-dealer father (Chris O’Donnell) lining up at the soup kitchen. With noblesse oblige no longer an option and Dad off to Chicago to seek work, Ma Kittredge (the oddly cast Julia Ormond, not everybody’s idea of a folksy frau) starts renting rooms to the poor, the needy, and the charismatically colorful of all classes and races.
Pretty as a picture in butterscotch lighting and period dress, Kit Kittredge spins its wheels for close to an hour, waiting for something villainous to show up. When it does, in the form of profiteers led by Stanley Tucci and Joan Cusack, the movie’s pulse quickens ever so slightly as Kit and her rag-tag new friends get on the case—but not enough, unfortunately, to get a serious plot afloat. Instead, widespread worthiness ensues: Kit gets a byline; Mom invites the unwashed to stay for Thanksgiving; and poof goes penury, taking racism and class inequality with it.
That resolution brought tears to the eyes of my two tween companions, who liked the movie much more than their crabby chaperone. She continues to cling stubbornly to the dowdy notion that kids deserve better than a sugarcoated portrait of our past or, for that matter, our present. Talk all you like about sisterhood and national solidarity, but I’d love to know what it’s like to watch Kit Kittredge when your house has just been foreclosed, or your credit jacked up without warning—or, like the movie’s distributors, New Line and Picturehouse, you’ve just been handed the pink slip from the parent company.