Sweet, old-fashioned and sentimental to a fault, Kit Kittredge: An American Girl is Nancy Drew with training wheels. It's a moist-eyed children's comedy-drama that dares to ask how much today's kids need to know about the Great Depression, or a Golden Age when all a plucky, smart girl could ever want out of life is “to be a (newspaper) reporter.”
That eternal Little Miss Sunshine, Abigail Breslin, has the title role, an upper-middle-class child who isn't blind to the hunger and homelessness going on around her. Daddy (Chris O'Donnell) might provide nicely for her and mom (Julia Ormond). But Daddy sells Plymouths in 1934 Cincinnati. And when half the country is out of work, is the other half buying Plymouths?
The marks of shame in Kit's school are those kids who might be wearing colorful, retailored chicken-feed sacks for dresses, with parents who keep chickens in the yard and sell eggs to make ends meet. Before she knows what hit her, before Kit can convince cranky newspaper editor Mr. Gibson (Wallace Shawn, a splendid old-school cliché here) to print a word this 10-year-old has tapped out on her typewriter, her own family is up against the Depression, taking in boarders, waiting for dad to find another job in far-off Chicago.
It was an era when proud men abandoned families they could no longer support, and every day without a letter from that absent dad could be an agony. But Kit and her friends keep busy minding the business of the boarders (Jane Krakowski, Stanley Tucci, Glenne Headly and Joan Cusack). Kit is convinced, thanks to a nice hobo boy (Max Theriot of Nancy Drew) that all hobos aren't thieving thugs. She comes to know a little of their world just as Cincinnati is gripped by a “hobo crime wave.”
The script, based on Valerie Tripp's Kit Kittredge stories (built around those pricey American Girl dolls), was written by Ann Peacock, the screenwriter who adapted The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and is terrific at explaining and romanticizing hobo life at a time when Brother Can you Spare a Dime? was the national anthem.
It's not a fast-paced affair, and one can wonder whether the 10-and-younger target audience will sit still for it, even if it does have a fancy doll tie-in. But you have to love the family-friendly message and the history lessons about hard times. “Waste not, want not. There's no shame in leftovers.” “There's no shame in families helping each other” and “selling eggs” or “taking in boarders.”
Breslin — a perky presence here, as she was in the recent hit Nim's Island — anchors this ably, with Tucci (as a boarder-magician), Krakowski (a leggy dance-instructor), Shawn and Cusack (a librarian) providing some laughs in support.
For what it is and for the young children for whom its intended, Kit Kittredge works wonderfully. Here's a movie to entertain young moviegoers who someday will, we can hope, put down their American Girl dolls and study American history.