Movies intended for young girls usually centre on fancy clothes, fairy tale love and unrealistic portraits of life. Kit Kittredge: An American Girl focuses on none of those things.
This is the first feature-length film based on the popular American Girl series of books and dolls. Kit (Abigail Breslin) is a nine-year-old aspiring reporter in Depression-era Cincinnati. Her idyllic life is shattered when her father (Chris O’Donnell) loses the car dealership and must leave the city to find work.
In the meantime, to stave off the bank collectors, Kit and her mom (Julia Ormond) take in borders. Their houseguests include a travelling magician (Stanley Tucci), a vivacious dance instructor (Jane Krakowski), a madcap mobile librarian (Joan Cusack), as well as Kit’s classmate Sterling (Zach Mills) and his mother (Glenne Headly). Unable to turn away strays, they also allow two young hobos, Will (Max Thieriot) and Countee (Willow Smith), to do odd jobs in exchange for food.
All of a sudden, a rash of robberies sweep the neighbourhood and one of Kit’s new friends are accused of the crimes. With the help of Sterling and her best friend Ruthie (Madison Davenport), Kit puts her investigative skills to the test of solving the mystery and proving her friend’s innocence.
Breslin is wonderful as the bright and inquisitive Kit. Having first captured moviegoers’ hearts in Little Miss Sunshine, here she achieves just the right balance of sweet and aggressive that her ambition and convictions require. Although she treads the line of know-it-all, which bright-eyed children tend to do, she never crosses over to annoying.
The adults in the film, particularly Cusack, turn themselves over to the story’s charm. O’Donnell sports some grays and a very natural fatherly concern, while Ormond genuinely appears to be just trying to roll with the punches. And Tucci is quite the believable professional illusionist. But Cusack is fantastic as the zany librarian, staying just under the threshold of too over-the-top (even though it often looks like she has to use the ladies room). Most of the adults are eventually reduced to bumbling caricatures but nothing less could be expected of a film aimed at kids.
The filmmakers do an excellent job recreating 1934; the costumes and interiors are particularly convincing. Director Patricia Rozema is an Ontario-native and the woman behind 1999’s Mansfield Park. Once again, she proves she is very comfortable adapting a period piece and obtaining great performances from actors of all ages and experience.
It’s refreshing to see a film for young girls that places less value on material possessions and impossible notions of romance and focuses on the importance of friends, family and making the best of life’s hardships. With the wide-range of characters and sub-plots, it’s a film the whole family can enjoy.
But be prepared – if your child has not yet discovered American Girl, she will want to after seeing this film.