Abigail Breslin ( pictured ) , the child actress who so memorably shook her moneymaker at the climax of the black comedy Little Miss Sunshine, now gets top billing in Kit Kittredge: An American Girl. That subtitle is a none-too-subtle reminder for those in the know ( read: millions of little girls and their indulgent parents ) that here, at last, is the first in what promises to be an assembly line of movies focusing on The American Girl doll line. By now, of course, those who haven't purchased a doll or a myriad of teeny-weeny accessories are aware of the movie, too, thanks to a shrewd marketing blitz.
In what was once a rare reversal ( but now increasingly commonplace ) , here's a case where the merchandise preceded the movie. So how do the goods hold up? Will the little darlings clutch the movie metaphorically to themselves as surely as they do those ubiquitous, emotionless dolls?
In a word: yes. As for the rest of the moviegoing audience, Kit Kittredge: An American Girl is a notch ( just barely ) above any number of other kid movies inspired by toys. I'm thinking in particular of the movies made for the Disney Channel as a prime example. These movies usually star interchangeable child actors that producers surround with expert name players sure to deliver laughs or villainy on cue. The plots usually have a hint of mystery with the solution fairly simple to solve, a share of cutsey-poo sight gags, and lots and lots of emotional turmoil. Every heartstring will be tugged at along the way and everything will work out just fine in the end. Empowerment is the ultimate message here. Director Patricia Rozema, doing a competent—if not exactly noteworthy—job, ensures that.
What elevates Kit a tad is the sumptuous budget that allows the 1934 Depression-era settings and costumes to be authentically realized, the music score to be played by a real orchestra instead of one of those cheesy synthesizers and, most importantly, money to buy a really terrific supporting cast. Kit's includes Joan Cusack, Stanley Tucci, Chris O'Donnell, Julia Ormond, Glenne Headley, Jane Krakowski, Wallace Shawn and the excellent teen actor Max Thieriot, who made a strong impression in The Astronaut Farmer.
The producers of Kit ( including Julia Roberts ) have spent their money well, for it's the sturdy cast, along with Breslin, that leaves the strongest impact. The movie has the languorous pace of a summer day—a pace captured in To Kill a Mockingbird—and it also has some of the nostalgic charm and sass of Neil Simon's Brighton Beach Memories and sections of Woody Allen's Radio Days. But unlike those two examples of the Great Depression filtered through a Manhattan sensibility, Kit Kittredge is seen through the eyes of a relatively affluent neighborhood in small-town America ( in Ohio ) .
In essence, the story follows young Kit, who is mad to become a journalist. Each day she retires to the spiffy treehouse to pound out her stories on her typewriter. Kit, who sports a blonde pageboy, is determined to get into print so she keeps pitching stories to anyone at the local paper who will listen. But it's 1934 and no one wants to hear a junior journalist's ideas or read her stories. The Depression has come to Ohio and things have gone from bad to worse for Kit and her immediate family—to the point where dad ( Chris O'Donnell ) not only loses his job but can't find another. He strikes out for Chicago hearing of possibilities there. Meanwhile, Kit's mother ( Julia Ormond ) is forced to take in boarders to keep up with the mortgage. This plot point also allows a slew of wacky characters—a myopic librarian, a shifty magician, a temptress, a snooty lady with airs, etc.—into the story, bringing plenty of vitality with them. Drifters of all ages, especially two young ones whom the mother hires to do odd jobs, also come into the story.
All these elements provide Kit—especially the mystery of who's committing the local robberies—with more story material in her quest to get published. Like Hope and Glory, the great British film about children finding fun during the London Blitz of WWII, Kit and her comrades find plenty of magic—even as crippling adversity is engulfing their elders.
The result is a very sweet family film—a cross between Annie ( without the songs, natch ) and Nancy Drew—that goes down as smoothly as a root beer float on a hot day. The film's one misstep for me was Ormond as the mother. I had trouble believing the exotically beautiful Ormond as the wife of cutie-pie O'Donnell and mother of Breslin. If anything, I imagine her leaving home—not the father—to seek fortune in the Big City. But I digress and, really, Ormond is only there to support little Kit/Abigail, as are the rest of the cast. And that's as it should be, this being a pint-sized star vehicle for Breslin. I expect Kit Kittredge: An American Girl to officially launch a movie franchise for the doll company and, with a slew of other dolls and back stories waiting in the wings, said movies, TV shows and Broadway musicals are sure to follow. The cups of little girls are sure to overflow with all these girl-empowerment messages.
One question, however, kept nagging at me throughout the movie ( the same one I heard all during the pre-teen stage sensation 'Wicked' ) : What about little boys? Where's their American Boy franchise? How come they get stuck with the guns/hunting/violence/killing characters and stories? How about a series where the boys use their brains instead of their brawn, too? How about some more movies to empower the little boys—something along the lines of Billy Elliot, say?
That's not asking too much, is it?
Check out my archived reviews at www.windycitytimes.com or www.knightatthemovies.com . Readers can leave feedback at the latter Web site, where there is also ordering information on my book of collected film reviews, Knight at the Movies 2004-2006.