Little Miss Breadline: Breslin Delivers as Depression-Era Damsel

Kit Kittredge: An American Girl
Running Time 101 minutes
Written by Ann Peacock
Directed by Patricia Rozema
Starring Abigail Breslin, Chris O’Donnell and Julia Ormond

Considering the surfeit of popular junk that is currently polluting the ozone, an enchanting little movie like Kit Kittredge: An American Girl is so sweet and sanitized it makes me feel almost guilty for liking it. But this vehicle for Abigail Breslin, the Oscar-nominated surprise sensation of the acclaimed Little Miss Sunshine, is not only a brisk, beautifully conceived period piece that spells entertainment with a capital E—it exalts the cheerful audience-participation innocence of those family films that used to star Margaret O’Brien, Dean Stockwell and Peggy Ann Garner. We could use some of that teenage honor about now, and Kit Kittredge, based on the phenomenally successful American Girl book series, fills the bill admirably.

Cincinnati, 1934. Kit is a 10-year-old struggling with big grown-up issues like bigotry, family unity, financial hardships, helping the poor and growing up with values in the years of the Great Depression. At first, Kit is oblivious to the hardships around her. Her dad (Chris O’Donnell) has a car dealership, her mom (Julia Ormond) is a kind, lovely and much respected pillar of the community, and Kit lives a cloudless life planning a future as a newspaper reporter. But there’s trouble in the air when the neighbors’ mortgage is foreclosed by the bank and they are forced to move away, and Kit’s happy childhood takes an ugly turn when she volunteers to help out in a soup kitchen and discovers her father is one of the customers. Too embarrassed to tell his family he lost his business, he leaves home to look for work; Kit, who takes in stray cats, and her mom, who feeds homeless hobo kids leftover meatloaf, are forced to take in boarders to make ends meet. Among the strangers now occupying the spare rooms are a disapproving prude (Glenne Headly) and her shy, personality-deprived son; a magician on the vaudeville circuit (Stanley Tucci); a leggy dance instructor (Jane Krakowski); and a mobile librarian (Joan Cusack). For ballast, add two young hobos who ride the rails and share whatever they can scrounge for food with a makeshift “Hooverville” community of fellow displaced persons. Kit shares the trials and survival techniques of these misunderstood social outcasts, tags along to do research on the hobo life and sells their sympathetic story for a penny a word to the paper. It’s not long before she learns what it means to be one of the disenfranchised herself, inviting the sarcasm of her classmates when she experiences the ultimate humiliation of wearing dresses home-sewn from feed sacks and selling eggs in her mother’s backyard. The movie gains an edge when a crime spree of sinister robberies points to her hobo friends, and Kit sets out to defend their innocence, following clues that lead to her mother’s boarding house. Solving the mystery in true Nancy Drew style, she gains the respect of the town, makes a formidable start toward a career in journalism, gets a reward, saves the boarding house, and puts a feast on the table when Daddy comes home for Thanksgiving. As Louis B. Mayer used to say, “There’s nothing wrong with a happy ending if there’s a turkey on the table.”

Kit Kittredge begins as lightweight fare, but the scope of a colorful time and period in America’s troubled past is captured vividly in both the screenplay by Ann Peacock (The Chronicles of Narnia) and the careful direction by Patricia Rozema (Mansfield Park) that perfectly balances thoughtful coming-of-age conflicts with above-average entertainment values. The cast is uniformly excellent, and pint-size Abigail Breslin is the exemplary embodiment of a plucky, resourceful, brave, generous, natural-born leader. No wonder the character of Kit is an inspiration to the American Girl readers who have turned these teen books into a cottage industry. She has an unwavering faith in her fellow man, and is always indefatigably optimistic and upbeat. But in the broader picture, the story is about people who not only make the most of what life deals them, but even find ways to cleave their troubles into a positive spin. It’s not easy to write credibly about 10-year-old heroines, or play them compellingly, but the movie and its pint-size star clear all hurdles subtly and valiantly with a surplus of charm, saving Kit Kittredge: American Girl from blandness and turning it into one of the summer’s most pleasing surprises.