O Lord, you will hear the desire of the meek;
you will strengthen their heart, you will incline
your ear to do justice for the orphan and the
oppressed, so that those from earth may strike
terror no more
The poor are disliked even by their neighbours, but the rich have many friends.
21Those who despise their neighbours are sinners, but happy are those who are kind to the poor…
Those who oppress the poor insult their Maker, but those who are kind to the needy honor him.
Then he looked up at his disciples and said: ‘Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.
‘Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.
‘Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.
I have seen a minor movie miracle this summer—two G-rated films that are actually goof for young and old, Wall-E, reviewed in the last issue, and now the first film based on the American Girl doll collection, Kit Kittredge: An American Girl. What some dreaded would be an elaborate product placement film, tied in to merchandising more than to good movie making, turns out to be good family fare. At a time when boys dominate, it is good to see a decent film aimed at girls that both entertains and raises issues about poverty and class prejudice.
The shots of old photographs and news headlines, forming the backdrop of the opening credits, make us aware that the Great Depression is raging. Kit Kittredge (Abigail Breslin) lives in an upper middle class, tree-lined neighborhood where the hard times are just beginning to encroach, as we see movers setting the neighbors’ possession on the lawn and a man puts up a “Foreclosure” sign. Kit is concerned, but her real focus is on becoming a Girl Reporter for a Cincinnati newspaper where she thinks her older brother can help get her a job. On her way to the newspaper office she stops by her father’s auto business, and he gives her words of assurance that she can accomplish what she sets out to do. Of course, her brother has a lowly position with no influence over the crotchety editor Mr. Gibson (Wallace Shawn), Turned away, Kit resolves to keep trying.
When raggedly dressed Will Shepherd (Max Thieriot), a teenager just a few years older than Kit, shows up with his small partner Countee (Willow Smith) looking for work, Kit sends him to her mother who is hosting a small garden party in the spacious back yard. Several of the women look upon the “hobo” pair with disdain, but Mrs. Kittredge (Julia Ormond) treats him kindly, inviting him to come back the next day. Before the two leave she offers them some sandwiches, which noble Will (one of the flaws of the film is the black and white portrayal of good and bad people) refuses at first, but then accepts when Mrs. Kittridge tells him they can be a down payment on his coming wages.
The full force of the depression hits home first when we see more of the neighbor’s plight—the mother had taken in chickens so that she could supplement the family income by selling eggs—when their goods are seized and the family cries in shame and humiliation, the mother having to tell her daughter that all her toys are gone. At school some of the children talk about the newly dispossessed with scorn as if they were morally to blame. Their teacher tells them that they will see for themselves what poverty is like by going as a class and helping serve in a soup kitchen. Then, like a bomb, Kit realizes that they too are in danger of becoming poor—she sees across the crowded room of the soup kitchen her own father (Chris O’Donnell) waiting for a meal. At home she learns that the bank has foreclosed on his auto sales business. He leaves to seek work in Chicago, assuring her that everything will be all right and promising that he will write her every week.
The next step in the march toward poverty is Mrs. Kittredge’s telling her that they will have to vacate their bedrooms so that they can take in boarders. As they arrive we see that they are a motley bunch: Miss Bond (Joan Cusack), driver of a mobile library truck, constantly mistakes the gas pedal for the brake, and so always runs into a tree, garbage can or fence when she tries to stop; Miss Dooley (Jane Krakowski) is a high-kicking dancer who wears shorts while practicing in the back yard; Mr. Berk (Stanley Tucci) is a glib talking musician who puts on shows for the residents; and Mrs. Howard (Glenne Headly) whose son Stirling (Zach Mills) is about Kit’s age, is always worried about health and social contamination.
Kit takes all this in stride, retreating often to her attic room to type stories on her old typewriter, or to the tree house where she gathers her friends, old and new—Ruthie Smithens (Madison Davenport) and Stirling are among them—in club initiation rites. The plot thickens when all of the city becomes worried about the series of “hobo crimes” being perpetrated in the area. Kit herself witnesses a limping thief steal a man’s wallet. It is assumed that because they are poor that it is a hobo involved in each theft. When her mother’s lock box, into which she has placed not only the family money but also the prized possessions of her fearful boarders, is stolen, the police arrive and immediately suspect Will. At one crime scene the boot prints, with a star in the heel, matches that of the pair that Mrs. Kittridge had given Will. Kit, who has visited the hobo village where Will lives and even took photographs and wrote a story about the people, refuses to believe that her friend is guilty. And so Kit, like Nancy Drew or the Hardy Boys, switches from Girl reporter to Girl Detective mode and, with the help of her loyal friends, sets out to uncover the real culprits and exonerate fugitive Will and his fellow hobos (all of whom, of course, are shown as gentle, honest, and kindly).
There is plenty to criticize in this somewhat simplistic film (I have not read any of Valerie Tripp’s books, but I suspect that her books are not on the same level as those of Catherine Paterson.), but there is far more to admire and cheer about. Although we do not see any evidence of faith (no table graces, for example), Mrs. Kittridge has a deep compassion for the victims of the depression, which obviously is passed on to Kit. The Biblical writers would approve of their treatment of the poor and rejected. In the words of the Man from Nazareth, they “are not far from the kingdom.”
Warning: the following might contain spoilers.
1) What do you like about the characters? Dislike? Any favorites? Why?
2) What seems to be the general attitude toward the poor? Of the women at Mrs. Kittridge’s gathering? Of Roger and his friends at school? Do people still blame the poor for being poor? Is Will looking for a handout, or what?
3) How are Kit and her mother on the side of the Biblical writers in regard to the poor.
4) How does the film show that the fear of becoming poor was deeply felt? For Kit what was the line that, when you crossed it, declared that you were poor? Why do you think she was so against their selling eggs? Where (and why) do you see people today afraid of slipping into poverty?
5) How realistic do you think the story is: that is, if the family needed money so badly, how did Kit have so much free time?
6) How is Stirling an outsider like Kit? What apparently has happened between his father and mother? How does what ha
s happened to him bother Kit? How often has her father written?
7) A good moment of grace: Stirling “receives” a letter, with a note and $40 for Mrs. Howard, his mother. Who wrote the letter and sent the cash? What effect did it have on her?
8) Adults who have seen Chocolat might compare the two communities and their treatment of outsiders. How are the river people in the French film like the hobos in this one? Why do so many people fear outsiders, rather than have compassion for them?
9) How does the film show the danger of acting on circumstantial evidence? How did the prejudiced view of the police and community lead them to assume that Will was guilty? Were you surprised to learn who the real culprits were?
10) What have you learned about the Great Depression? Can families always control what happens to them? What does Kit learn at the end about the importance of sticking together and “sticking to it” ?
11) Do you think that you can see God at work in the story, even though this is not a “religious film” ? Might it be in those times and places where people support and help each other? (See Matt. 25:31-36 for Jesus’ take on this.) Jesus declared that the poor are “blessed” —what blessings does Kit and her family and friends receive?