The new feature film "Kit Kittredge: An American Girl" might be a tale of childhood some 80 years ago, but it hits awfully close to home. Especially when that home has just been foreclosed upon.
The movie, a Depression-era tale, highlights one effect of setting a fictional story in an all-too-real and relevant past: History lessons become current-event lessons.
"Kit Kittredge," which hit theaters Wednesday, is the latest spawn in the American Girl franchise of dolls, books, accessories and TV films. And as producer Elaine Goldsmith-Thomas says, the American Girl line bridges the gap "so you realize that no matter how much time has gone by, not much has changed."
American Girl is based on the concept of teaching through lovable and uplifting creations. So in that vein, "Kit Kittredge," which stars recent Oscar nominee Abigail Breslin ("Little Miss Sunshine"), is the story of a precocious 10-year-old coping amid financial hard times.
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Talk about timing. With foreclosures rampant, gas prices soaring well past $4 a gallon and many families struggling in 2008, this G-rated tribute to pluck and perseverance is what Goldsmith-Thomas calls a "living history lesson."
Witness an early scene:
Two young siblings watch helplessly as their belongings are removed from their home -- including a child's bed with love-worn stuffed animals still resting on the sheets. A foreclosure sign has been pounded into the lawn.
"Where will they go?" asks their pal Ruthie, whose still-prosperous father owns the bank that foreclosed upon her friends' property.
"I don't know," whispers Kit.
The next day, there is no sign of the sisters at school, although there is plenty of talk from a loudmouthed boy about how that family is just "good-for-nothing deadbeat egg-sellers."
(The younger sibling is played by a girl who worriedly told Goldsmith-Thomas that, coincidentally, one of her friends had just lost her home. "She wanted to know, 'What does this mean, exactly?'" Goldsmith-Thomas says. "She was really scared.")
Home foreclosure is a dominant theme in the film. The Kittredges take in boarders -- including a mother and son who lost their home (Dad has gone off to New York to try to find work) -- before facing foreclosure themselves.
"I never wanted this for you," says Kit's mother, portrayed by Julia Ormond. "You should be out playing, not worrying about boarders and mortgages and selling eggs." (Selling eggs to raise money is what Kit considers to be "one step away from the poorhouse.")
There have been three made-for-television movies based on various American Girl dolls, and this film represents a calculated leap to the big screen. Choosing to showcase Kit was a decision vetted by Goldsmith-Thomas and a group of her fellow advisers and producers (including Julia Roberts, who was introduced to the American Girl concept by niece Emma Roberts of "Nancy Drew").
Picturehouse President Bob Berney acknowledges that there were some initial concerns about how well a period film -- at least one without dungeons or dragons -- would do among young audiences. What he didn't expect was how timely the film would be.
"Suddenly, there are too many associations with some of the themes in the movie," Berney says. "But, in a way, it makes it relevant."
For director Patricia Rozema ("Mansfield Park"), one of the film's key scenes is when Kit and her friends tour the "hobo jungle," the shantytown where those who ride the rails and trade work for food make their home.
"The voice-over there says that 'we're all a few strokes of bad luck away from being in the same situation ourselves,'" Rozema says.