“Kit Kittredge: An American Girl” is likely to do brisk business among families this weekend. What could be more fitting this Fourth of July than to take your daughter to a movie about a spunky young girl helping her friends and family struggle through the Great Depression?
Patricia Rozema might seem an odd choice to direct such flag-waving fare. The Canadian filmmaker is best known for her racy and revisionist version of Jane Austen’s “Mansfield Park,” whose lesbian overtones upset many of the author’s fans.
So it’s no surprise to discover that lurking beneath the history lessons and homey music of “Kit Kittredge” is more than a hint of something deeper. The movie is the fourth based on a character in the popular American Girl line of historical dolls and the first to receive a theatrical release. Its target viewers are probably around the same age, 10, as the title character, so they can’t be expected to understand why one of the villains of the piece is a critic of the New Deal.
No matter your politics, though, Kit Kittredge is a pretty good role model for young girls. Think of her as a Nancy Drew who wants not just to conduct investigations but write them up and publish them, too. Academy Award-nominated actress Abigail Breslin, transformed into a blonde, plays the girl who lives in 1934 Cincinnati and wants nothing more than to be a reporter.
“The Depression seemed far away from my world,” she tells us at the beginning of the film. She’s too busy inducting new recruits into her Treehouse Club, whose honorary members include Eleanor Roosevelt and Amelia Earhart.
Life doesn’t stay normal for long. First a friend has to leave the club when her parents lose their house; then Kit’s own father (Chris O’Donnell) is forced to move to Chicago, without the family, to look for work there.
The Kittredges, led by the matriarch (Julia Ormond), take in a group of boarders who provide both drama and comic relief. Jane Krakowski is a marriage-minded dance instructor, Joan Cusack is a mobile librarian who really doesn’t know how to drive, and Stanley Tucci is a magician who lightens the mood.
More important to the plot and the politics are a pair of drifters, just children themselves but forced to work to live (“Nancy Drew’s” Max Thieriot and Will Smith’s child Willow Smith).
No supporting player is more amusing, though, than Wallace Shawn as the stereotypical angry editor. Kit’s just determined to get published in the Cincinnati Register, and she’s even willing to face up to this crotchety guy to do it.
First, she has to find her story. She does so, not just by investigating a mystery that could mean disaster for her family, but also the wider world of the Depression going on around her.
Kit’s a plucky girl. Perhaps a bit too plucky - in a movie that seems so concerned with historical accuracy, you have to wonder whether little girls really would have talked back to their parents so much in 1934.
If you can make it through an ending that’s over-the-top sappy, even for a children’s film, you’ll find a story about a girl who does embody some of the best ideals of American girlhood.
TITLE: “Kit Kittredge: An American Girl”
CREDITS: Directed by Patricia Rozema. Written by Ann Peacock based on the stories by Valerie Tripp.
RUNNING TIME: 100 minutes
WEB SITE: www.kitkittredge.com
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS