[This review refers to the theatrical release of the film. A review of the DVD and bonus features can be found at the bottom of this page.]
The next time someone tells me that they don't make movies like they used to, I'm going to point to Kit Kittredge: An American Girl. Here's a movie so innocent, so inoffensive, and so exuberantly old-fashioned that you could stick it in a time machine, send it back to the 30's or 40's, and have audiences delight in every frame. I don't know very much about the "American Girl" novels or dolls on which the film is based, and I'm certainly not in the target audience for this thing, but I do know that a good movie is a good movie no matter what. And Kit Kittredge is a very good movie - one of the nicest surprises of the 2008 summer season, in fact.
Abigail Breslin plays the title character, a young girl living in Cincinnati during the Great Depression. She dreams of being a newspaper reporter, and even tries - unsuccessfully - to get an article she wrote in front of a local editor (Wallace Shawn). Kit watches as some of her friends' families have their homes foreclosed by the bank. Then she discovers that her own family is heading down the same road. Her father (Chris O'Donnell) leaves for Chicago in search of work, leaving Kit alone with her mother (Julia Ormond).
To survive, they take in a number of boarders: an eccentric magician (Stanley Tucci), a vamp-ish dance instructor (Jane Krakowski), and a mobile librarian (Joan Cusack). They also take in a sour woman named Mrs. Howard (Glenne Headly) and her young son who have similarly been left alone by the male patriarch of their family. Meanwhile, a series of crimes is being committed locally, with many blaming the large "hobo" population. When some valuables belonging to Mrs. Kittredge and her boarders are stolen, the prime suspect is Will (Max Thieriot), a hobo teen who has been doing some odd jobs around the house to earn money. Kit isn't convinced that he's responsible, so she puts on her reporter's hat to investigate.
Kit Kittredge is surprisingly frank in its depiction of the Great Depression. It shows the things families had to do to survive, such as wearing dresses made from potato sacks, or selling eggs (which Kit nervously identifies as the last stop before losing it all). There is a scene where Will shows Kit and her friends around the "hobo jungle." It is here that they meet people who once had cars and homes and jobs, but are now reduced to living in tents and wearing rags. (It may be an eye-opener for today's kids, raised as they are with cell phones and videogame consoles and iPods, to consider a time when once-prosperous families suddenly lost everything they had.) The story also addresses the kind of prejudice that existed against the impoverished. Through her adventures, Kit comes to realize that poor people aren't necessarily bad; they are human beings who, through one form of calamity or another, have hit hard times. She is only a step removed from them.
With this starring role, Abigail Breslin proves that Little Miss Sunshine was no fluke. She gives a strong performance that holds the entire movie together. Breslin has the kind of spunky quality that is endearing rather than annoying. This makes her rare among child actors. As the character faces some hard truths about life, the actress registers those lessons in her eyes. We see the world as she sees it, and what's important is that Kit is slowly letting go of her utopian childhood fantasies and seeing life's occasional dark truths. Having a competent young actress guide us through the process makes everything more powerful than it would have been in the hands of, say, the latest Nickelodeon flavor of the month kid star.
The supporting actors are very good as well. Their job is simply to provide the flavor, be it comic (the windbag newspaper editor) or dramatic (the emotionally and physically abandoned Mrs. Howard). Granted, the resolution of the story's central mystery is not hard to figure out, and some people may be slightly put off by some of the supporting actors' overly broad performances toward the end, but to me those things didn't matter. Kids may not be able to figure out the mystery as quickly; even if they do, there's joy in the way Kit solves it. Also, the sometimes-humorous performances reminded me of something from an era-appropriate movie. There's a little bit of homage going on here.
When I have children, this is the kind of movie I hope they will like. It's intelligent, it's meaningful, and it doesn't condescend to kids. In fact, it actually encourages kids to think. There are no needless fart jokes, or meta pop-cultural references, or affected hip attitudes. This is a simple, straightforward movie that cares about its characters and its setting. Kit Kittredge challenges youngsters in the audience to contemplate their own prejudices, as well as the relative affluence so many of us take for granted. Even the best family-friendly pictures sometimes wear themselves out trying to dazzle us. Kit Kittredge: An American Girl does the opposite. Like a vintage film from the earlier days of the cinema, it lets its morality be the compass and assumes that moviegoers will follow along as it tells a simple-yet-compassionate story. Walking into the theater, I never expected to say this but…I loved this film.
( 1/2 out of four)
Kit Kittredge: An American Girl will be available on DVD and Blu-Ray beginning October 28. The DVD is double-sided, with the widescreen version on one side and the fullscreen version on the other. The Blu-Ray is widescreen only.
A trailer gallery for the other American Girl movies is the primary bonus feature, although the DVD version also has a CD-ROM link to more supplementary material. You can access a casting segment, the HBO First Look special about the movie, and some deleted scenes.
I'm not sure why those things aren't available on the DVD itself, but the real treasure here is the movie anyway. (A digital copy is provided so you can watch it on your computer or portable device.) Kit Kittredge: An American Girl is sweetly old-fashioned entertainment that is ripe for discovery in the home video format.
Kit Kittredge: An American Girl is rated G. The running time is 1 hour and 40 minutes.
To learn more about this film, check out AskMen.com: Kit Kittredge: An American Girl
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