July 02, 2008

Kit Kittredge: An American Girl

Little Miss Sunny-Side-Up

Grade: B –

Director: Patricia Rozema

Starring: Abigail Breslin, Julia Ormond, Chris O’Donnell, Jane Krakowski, Joan Cusack, and Stanley Tucci

MPAA Rating: G

Running Time: 1 hour, 41 minutes

Although so mawkish it borders on banal, Kit Kittredge: An American Girl is solid, innocuous children’s fare that will entertain pint-sized viewers while likely inducing their parents into a diabetic coma. Adapted from the “American Girl” doll and book series, the ubiquitous Abigail Breslin stars as Kit, a Depression-era, 9-year-old sprite who harbors dreams of writing copy for her hometown daily, the Cincinnati Register. Against a backdrop of financial hardship and class conflict, where selling eggs is just one step above hobos, Kit’s father (Chris O’Donnell) moves to Chicago in search of work, leaving Kit and her mother (Julia Ormond) behind to stave off foreclosure.

To make ends meet, the Kittredges rent their home to several boarders, including a ditsy mobile librarian (Joan Cusack), a leggy dance instructor (Jane Krakowski), and an unemployed magician (Stanley Tucci). They also barter for the labor of two young hobos, Will (Max Thieriot) and Countee (Willow Smith). When a hobo crime spree hits the greater Cincinnati area and the houseguests’ belongings go missing, Kit turns into a proto-Nancy Drew to track down the real thieves. Breslin’s shtick has grown increasingly weary over her past several films, but here her precociousness fits well with the whimsical milieu. She also benefits from a uniformly solid supporting cast, which also includes Glenne Headly and young Zach Mills as neighbors forced to move into the Kittredge home.

The film’s plot and characters form a facile meringue that, as with a good pie crust, is given shape by a genteel historical backdrop that dares to educate while entertaining its young viewers. While director Patricia Rozema flashes little filmmaking flair, she manages to maintain a delicate balance between sunny fantasy and its harsh reality underpinning, at least until a painfully saccharine denouement whose convenient loose-end tying treads into It’s a Wonderful Life treacle. For all the fancy of treehouse clubs and whodunits, we also get portraits – sunbathed as they are – of financially broken families and homeless shantytowns.

Kit Kittredge is an American story about an American girl mass produced, like their retail antecedents, for American consumption. Marketing an era of economic cataclysm? Hey, only in America.

Neil Morris

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