Plucky, likable and determined to succeed, much like its heroine, “Kit Kittredge: An American Girl” is a throwback to the kinds of movies they don’t make anymore. Anchored by a fine performance from Abigail Breslin, this wholesome, engaging entertainment offers something for viewers ages 7 to 107 and, given the popularity of the “American Girl” brand, should be an especially hot-ticket item for elementary- and middle-school girls. A platform release should benefit from positive word of mouth among “Kit’s” target demo and, just as importantly, the target demo’s moms, yielding strong returns.
That there’s been a dearth of intelligent, appealing live-action movies directed at girls should surprise no one. Into the breach steps “Kit Kittredge,” the first “American Girl” theatrical feature (and the fourth filmed adaptation, following WB telepics “Felicity: An American Girl Adventure,” “Samantha: An American Girl Holiday,” and “Molly: An American Girl on the Home Front”).
By way of background, Wisconsin-based “American Girl” (founded in 1986) is a line of dolls, books and accessories notable for their historical accuracy. Each character hails from a different period and thus grapples with a period-appropriate challenge in her respective book series, gleaning valuable life lessons as she struggles to prevail.
The story unfolds in Cincinnati circa 1934, with 10-year-old Kit (Breslin) about to see the effects of the Great Depression firsthand. Kit’s brisk voiceover establishes that her dad Jack (Chris O’Donnell) has a car dealership, her mom Margaret (Julia Ormond) has a garden club, and her older brother is away.
Keenly observant (and a remarkably good typist), Kit aspires to be a reporter and visits the Cincinnati Register, hoping to pitch a story on the Chicago World’s Fair to hard-nosed, fast-talking editor Mr. Gibson (Wallace Shawn). “Get lost, kid” is the gist of his response.
The sudden appearance of a foreclosure sign next door, an encounter with a pair of hobos and spirited classroom debates begin to change Kit’s sense of her world, often glimpsed safely from the treehouse in her front yard. But nothing prepares her for the moment she discovers her own father has joined the ranks of the newly unemployed. Played without dialogue, it’s a beautifully restrained scene of mutual realization and tacit shame.
When Jack heads for Chicago to find work, Margaret takes on boarders to make ends meet. A socially diverse community of shared financial distress, the Kittredge boarding house includes coquettish dance instructor Miss Dooley (Jane Krakowski); daffy mobile librarian Miss Bond (Joan Cusack); clever illusionist Mr. Berk (Stanley Tucci); and the reserved Mrs. Howard (Glenne Headly) and her 9-year-old son, Stirling (Zach Mills).
The friendly young hobos, Will (Max Thieriot) and Countee (Willow Smith), do repairs on the Kittredge property in exchange for food. For her next pitch to the Register, Kit decides to track Will and Countee for a day and learns about riding the rails, the pictograph-specific hobo language and life inside a “hobo jungle,” or tent village.
All of this is both engaging and well elucidated. Beyond that, though, the story feels remarkably current; the era and specifics may be different, but the climate of economic anxiety is something to which contempo American audiences can easily relate.
Mr. Gibson has no interest in a piece about kindly hobos, especially because they are presumed responsible for a rash of robberies in the Midwest. When these suspicions rear their head at home, Kit sets out to unravel a mystery — and she does, although the very last scene is a hair too treacly and forced.
Helmer Patricia Rozema (“Mansfield Park”) does an excellent job navigating the film’s tonal shifts, incorporating comedy, tragedy and a suspenseful denouement with equal grace. Tech contributions are strong, especially David Boyd’s sepia-inflected lensing and Peter Cosco’s down-to-the-last-1930s-detail production design Equally creditable is Joseph Vitarelli’s score, which is seamlessly interwoven with well-chosen standards from the era, including “Don’t Fence Me In” and “It’s Only a Paper Moon.”
Breslin provides not only marquee value but also welcome spunk and tenacity (if only her stiff blonde wig were as lively as she is — it’s the one prop that seems wholly fake). In a performance without vanity (and with virtually no makeup), Ormond has never been better. Supporting cast is also fine, though Cusack’s ditsy librarian will resonate better with kids than with adults. And Shawn’s casting as the salty editor will come as a delicious inside joke to those who fondly remember his father William’s tenure at the New Yorker.