Even kids love old timey. Is stealing ever okay? How about if it's from a rich banker in order to save the home of an out-of-work family, or committed by those suffering in hunger and despair, as in the Great Depression? In the new film, Kit Kittredge: An American Girl, based on the American Girl book series, Kit and her pals delve into that and other tricky moral quandaries, as they exit the safety of their tree-fort to embark upon various feats beyond their years. It turns out that Kit learns the most about survival, ingenuity, honesty and grace just by looking around her hometown.
Abigail Breslin (Little Miss Sunshine) is the perfect choice for the role of Kit. She is confident, poised and assertive, with an earnest innocence. As Kit, Breslin also illustrates that she knows well how to register a look of shock or surprise, keeping a young audience enthralled with the film's exploits and misadventure.
The 30's-era tale chronicles the adventures of an aspiring young journalist who helps solve a mystery that threatens her family's home, as well as her entire Cincinnati neighborhood. When all signs of guilt point to the "hobo jungle" on the city's fringe-where Kit's new friends Will and Countee live alongside other jobless, hungry victims of the Depression-Kit convinces her friends to ferret out the truth.
Kit, along with her mother (Julia Ormond), a newspaper editor (a deliciously cast Wallace Shawn, The Princess Bride), and others from an all-star cast remind us that poor people (in this case "hobos") are not necessarily deadbeats, that talking to strangers can often prove to be a good thing, that doing more with less invites creativity and ingenuity, that the "wrong side of town" is often the most interesting side, and that stealing is never okay. Kit also serves as an example to her friends for her assertiveness and calculated risk-taking. After all, how many young girls in the 1930's would go straight to the city's newspaper editor demanding that he read her story? All these messages are delivered in a refreshingly non-preachy fashion.
That said, the film doesn't really get going until about halfway through. Although the characters (including amusing turns by Joan Cusack, Stanley Tucci, and Jane Krakowski) grab the audience's attention, I couldn't help wondering if the plot would ever take off - well it does, finally, after which the anticipation and suspense capture us completely.
The lovely British actress Ormond (Legends of the Fall) is the epitome of patience, but her timing seems oddly off, as if her part is almost edited in. The result is that she appears aloof and distant. Joan Cusack's antics, while playing a nutty mobile librarian, had the kids in the audience giggling non-stop (although I found her slightly annoying).
When Kit's family needs to raise cash, they decide to take in boarders. They literally open the door to colorful characters, adding immensely to the richness of neighborhood life. Likewise, a visit to the hobo camp introduces Kit and her buddies to a community that is completely foreign (but not romanticized) and seemingly exotic, to these previously sheltered kids. Shocked and delighted, they learn to appreciate those who, by necessity or choice, live unconventional lives.
The film, while suffering from occasional sappiness, also serves partly as a U.S. history lesson, with a role-model for pre-teen girls thrown in. And while highlighting the plight of the unemployed, the story advocates grit and ingenuity, which always seem to surface more readily during hard times.
Kit Kittredge: An American Girl ★★★✩
Starring: Abigail Breslin, Stanley Tucci, Julia Ormond, Joan Cusack and Chris O'Donnell. Director: Patricia Rozema. Rated G.