DVD Review: Kit Kittredge: An American Girl

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This is a review of the theatrical release, published on June. 19, 2008

Refreshingly sincere and full of wholesome can-do spirit, the first big-screen incarnation of the American Girl doll-and-book series -- the anti-Bratz of collectibles -- offers solid, kid-friendly storytelling. Although it puts a warm gloss on the Great Depression, "Kit Kittredge: An American Girl" does so with heart and spunk and a minimum of fuss, particularly in Abigail Breslin's bright title-role performance.

The film's appeal to girls and to mother-daughter duos who are devotees of the source material is a given. But newcomers to the franchise's inspirational history lessons (which include three telefilms) will appreciate the old-fashioned guilelessness of the story. Parents and grandparents, in particular, will be grateful for tween fare that doesn't center on fashionista frenzy.

However bathed in nostalgia, the story's hard-times reverberations are of the moment. Set in 1934 Cincinnati, the film finds indomitable 9-year-old Kit (Breslin in a blond bob, reminiscent of a young(er) Kirsten Dunst) watching her well-to-do neighborhood struck by foreclosures and unemployment. After her father (Chris O'Donnell) heads to Chicago in search of work, Kit's resilient mom (Julia Ormond) opens their home to boarders as she struggles to pay the bills.

The ever-observant Kit retreats to her treehouse typewriter to create articles like "Portrait of a Boarding House," which she fearlessly submits to the editor of the Cincinnati Register (Wallace Shawn), eager to jump-start her career in journalism. But she's also a Nancy Drew in the making, and when a wave of "hobo crimes" affects her household, she and her best friends (Madison Davenport and Zach Mills) set out to solve the burglary. Kit, like the movie itself, is driven by a sense of compassion, and she's determined to prove that the accused, a hobo teen (Max Thieriot) who has been working for food, is not the thief.

Although the emphasis is on entertainment rather than education, the script by Ann Peacock ("The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe") nonetheless is pitched toward younger viewers in its careful explanations and reiterations. Despite sermonizing tendencies, though, the story is not without pleasingly silly business, mainly from the adults in Kit's life, deftly drawn by a strong supporting cast. Besides the lovely Ormond and sputtering Shawn, there's Glenne Headly's nose-in-the air neighbor, brought down a few notches; Joan Cusack's road-skills-challenged driver of a mobile library; Stanley Tucci's traveling magician, entertaining the Kittredge household with living-room levitations; and Jane Krakowski's husband-hunting hoofer.

With the exception of Kit's parents, they're all slightly ridiculous, as adults usually are in kids' eyes, but director Patricia Rozema ("Mansfield Park") never loses sight of their smiling-through-the-tears ache. The balancing act between emotional darkness and cutesy fortitude is constant and apparent, but mainly the film carries it off with poise and earns its heart-tugging payoff.

Bolstering the gentle look at class divisions and demonization of the have-nots is Peter Cosco's production design, which brings to life somewhat sanitized soup kitchens and hobo camps as well as 1930s middle-class comfort, complete with quaint vintage gadgets. Cinematographer David Boyd casts the proceedings in an apt burnished light.
Word-of-mouth should be chipper in the movie's limited release in five markets this weekend before it goes wide July 2.
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