Abigail Breslin, Joan Cusack, Julia Ormond, Stanley Tucci, Chris O'Donnell, Zach Mills
I love Abigail Breslin.
In all honesty, my love for Breslin is the only reason I relented to finally catching "Kit Kittredge: An American Girl Mystery," a Picturehouse/New Line release inspired by one of the dolls in the American Girl product line.
For those who haven't heard of the American Girl dolls, the "American Girl" doll empire consists of characters, really. American Girl dolls are everything the pathetic "Bratz" dolls are not...American Girl dolls are historical, well constructed and positively designed for young, mostly pre-teen girls. Each doll represents a 9-year-old girl from a different point in history, with their own individual back story and, without exception, teaches their young owners lessons in courage, perseverance and positive self-esteem.
Now then, having seen the debacle known as "Bratz: The Movie," a horrid little flick that attempted to pass off a pro-girl message while simultaneously contradicting itself with materialistic, shallow themes, I approached "Kit Kittredge" with a fair degree of resistance. To top it all off, "Kit Kittredge" is G-rated. So, I feared we'd not only get a lame movie, but a tame one.
I was wrong.
"Kit Kittredge: An American Girl Mystery" will easily qualify as one of Summer 2008's best surprises. Kit (Abigail Breslin) is a 9-year-old precious gem of a young girl who lives a bit of a privileged life in pre-Depression era Cincinnati with her father (Chris O'Donnell) and mother (Julia Ormond). As the Depression begins to hit the city, Kit begins to intelligently observe the devastating impact on those around her and, eventually, it all hits home and her father loses his car dealership and heads off to Chicago to look for work. To make ends meet, her mother takes in boarders including a rather nutty librarian (the always impressive Joan Cusack), a magician (Stanley Tucci) and a mother (Glenne Headly, "Mr. Holland's Opus") whose son, Stirling (Zach Mills), quickly becomes her best friend. Kit dreams of being a reporter, and she keeps pitching her idea for a column on a kid's eye view of the Depression to the local editor-in-chief (Wallace Shawn). Soon enough, of course, a great mystery lands in her investigative lap when a series of crimes are blamed on local hobos and Kit takes it upon herself to find the truth.
"Kit Kittredge" is a surprisingly effective film, not so much as a mysterious (the mystery is quite obvious), but as an intelligent, kid-friendly approach to understanding the Great Depression. Kit, as played by Breslin, is an intelligent, insightful girl who sees what is going on around her and yet, wisely, she's also played very much as a 9-year-old girl who filters all of what she sees through the ideas of a young child. It could be tempting to say that Breslin doesn't play Kit as "dramatic" enough, and yet that's really the beauty of her performance. Children, at least 9-year-old children, don't quite buy into the drama of situations even when the situations are remarkably dramatic. Breslin seems to be taking the place of Dakota Fanning, another impressive young actress who tried to grow up to rapidly onscreen with the poorly chosen "Hound Dog" project in which she played a young rape victim.
While Breslin may eventually tackle meatier roles, she's carving quite the niche' for herself in a variety of mostly family-friendly films. There's nothing in "Kit Kittredge" inappropriate for children, a fact likely to limit its U.S. box-office and attraction to younger American kids who are used to special effects, action and silliness.
"Kit Kittredge" is much closer in tone to the older "Nancy Drew" and "Hardy Boys" mysteries and director Patricia Rozema ("Mansfield Park") accurately portrays the Depression era in which the film is set.
Screenwriter Ann Peacock ("Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe") maintains faithfulness to the American Girl dolls by never talking down to the film's younger target audience, which should be both boys and girls. The film's central character is a young girl, however, the themes of bravery, perseverance and remaining true to one's values are themes that should and will play well for boys and girls. While the film is never overly intense, scenes in which Kit confronts the realities of the economic times are far more effective than in many higher-esteemed films like "Cinderella Man."
Along with Breslin's pristine performance, Rozema has surrounded her with a stellar supporting cast, most notably the spot-on perfect Joan Cusack, Stanley Tucci's somewhat shady magician and Wallace Shawn.
As a modestly budgeted indie flick, "Kit Kittredge" is remarkably accurate in terms of the film's production design. Only occasionally off-balance camera work keeps "Kit Kittredge" from being an "A" range film, and yet it remains easily one of my favorite films of the year so far.
Families with young children, whether they are familiar or not with American Girl dolls, are likely to embrace this film which achieves the look, personality ahd spirit that "Nancy Drew" was aiming for but didn't quite achieve. Actress Julia Roberts, who has become increasingly concerned about putting out positive cinematic experiences for children, is one of the film's producers.
While "Kit Kittredge" isn't quite a perfect film, this first full-length film inspired by the American Girl doll series may very well become an American classic to delight young children for years to come.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic