You watch that Abigail Breslin. At 12 years old, she’s already been nominated for an Oscar (for “Little Miss Sunshine”), and “Kit Kittredge: An American Girl” proves it was no fluke. She’s the real deal — naturally charismatic, instantly likable, and more than capable as an actress. The kid’s gonna go far! Assuming she stays off the drugs, I mean.
It’s on Breslin’s pre-adolescent little shoulders that “Kit Kittredge” sits, and she carries it along just fine. Kit is part of the American Girl series of dolls, as I suspect many of you already know, and the dolls each have elaborate backstories associated with them, enumerated in books and stories and I don’t know what all. This is the first theatrical film to tell an American Girl’s story (there were some TV movies before), and surely it will delight its target audience. I’m nowhere near that demographic, and I found it quite pleasant, quite pleasant indeed.
The year is 1934, the height of the Great Depression, and Kit lives with her mother (Julia Ormond) and father (Chris O’Donnell) in Cincinnati. Kit, a budding journalist and a fearless lass, has been typing up feature stories and submitting them to the city paper’s gruff editor (Wallace Shawn). She has a treehouse club with her girlfriends, where presumably they have tea parties and give names to stuffed animals. The Depression has not yet affected the Kittredge family, though they’ve seen its effects all around them, with one house after another being foreclosed on.
And then it hits them, too. Dad heads to Chicago to look for work, and Mom starts taking in boarders at the Kittredge house to make ends meet. Among the new tenants are a flirtatious dance instructor (Jane Krakowski), an imperious former social climber (Glenne Headly) and her son, Stirling (Zach Mills), who’s Kit’s age, a dotty librarian (Joan Cusack), and a magician (Stanley Tucci). Yes, a magician! Plus, Mrs. Kittredge has taken pity on a couple of young hobos who work for food — Will (Max Thieriot), a white teenager, and Countee (Willow Smith), a young black boy.
Hobos play a crucial part in the film, which is probably another reason why I like it. Not enough movies today address the hobo issue. Here, there is a a great deal of anti-hobo sentiment in the Cincinnati media, with people blaming the rail-riders for every crime that’s committed. But plucky Kit and her open-minded mother don’t believe all hobos are bad. Will and Countee take Kit, Stirling, and Kit’s best friend Ruthie (Madison Davenport) to the nearby hobo camp, and we see they’re mostly decent folks who take care of each other. They’ve just fallen on hard times, that’s all.
Kit writes an article about it, and the newspaper editor reads the headline aloud incredulously: “‘Kindness and Honor in the Hobo Community’?” Kit corrects him. “There’s no question mark,” she says. “It’s a declaration.” You tell him, Kit!
Directed by Patricia Rozema (“Mansfield Park”), the movie gets by largely on its guileless, upbeat charm, and on those same qualities as found in Breslin. Kit is confident but not obnoxious, smart but not nerdy, and she struggles at times to remain optimistic in the face of hardship — but she always comes out of it with a rosy outlook after all.
Likewise, the film is merry and chipper and doesn’t have much of a conflict until about halfway through, when the friendly hobos are accused of theft and it’s up to Kit and her pals to do some crime solving. But even that plot line is never menacing or scary, and obviously its eventual happy ending is a foregone conclusion.
I got a little restless near the end, thinking maybe a film this sweet and simple, and so lacking in traditional crises and villains, ought to be about 20 minutes shorter. Then again, I didn’t have my American Doll with me, like several of the girls in the audience did, so maybe I was missing out on part of the magic. I’ll be sure to correct that when the G.I. Joe movie comes out.
B (1 hr., 41 min.; )