Full disclosure: I adored the American Girl dolls as a kid. For those of you who aren’t in the know (and clearly don’t have tween daughters), American Girl is a doll and toy empire, based on the basic idea of teaching girls about history. Each of their dolls comes from a different period in American history, such as the Victorian era or the 70s, and the characters have a six-book series about their lives. The girls—always girls, always nine years old—are resourceful, plucky, and brave even in the face of danger, which can range from the economic troubles of the Great Depression to escaping slavery.
Basically, even though it’s a toy empire, and an expensive one at that, American Girl is one of the most wholesome businesses targeting young girls. And their first feature movie, Kit Kittredge: An American Girl, is as wholesome as it comes, with gentle humor, caring adult characters and, as always, lessons about reaching for your dreams. There’s not much in it for childless adults, but parents looking for entertainment that will actually teach their kids something (without boring them to death), Kit will probably be a welcome summer outing.
Abigail Breslin, in the lead role, is a huge key to keeping Kit Kittredge light on its feet. Nine-year-old Kit is watching her city of Cincinnati change as the Great Depression starts taking away jobs and forcing her neighbors to sell their houses and move. When her dad (Chris O’Donnell) is forced to go to Chicago to look for work, her mom (Julia Ormond) opens the house to boarders, a nutty collection of oddballs including Joan Cusack as a librarian, Stanley Tucci as a magician, and a stuffy mother whose son, Stirling (Zach Mills), quickly becomes Kit’s friend.
For her part, Kit dreams of being a newspaper reporter, but she’s continually turned down by the local editor-in-chief (Wallace Shawn) when she pitches her idea for a “kid’s view of the Depression.” Soon enough, a scoop falls right in Kit’s lap. A crime spree in the area has been blamed on the hobos camping outside of town, and with the help of two drifters she’s befriended (Max Thieriot and Willow Smith), she sets out to crack the case.
The “mystery” element of Kit Kittredge will be a little obvious to even older children, and as Kit and friends track down the true thieves, there’s never a real sense of suspense. The jokes are really tame, especially post-Shrek, and anyone who hasn’t already been sucked in by the American Girl franchise may not see the appeal of a movie set in the 1930s. But the movie does a really great job of the darker parts of the story, like Kit’s fear of being ostracized by her friends when she and her mom take jobs on the side, or her realization that her dad is not infallible when he doesn’t write as often as he promised. The shadows of the Great Depression sneak in just the way they would for a real kid, never overpowering the importance of a secret treehouse society or rivalries at school.
As mentioned, Breslin is sparkling in the lead role, and she’s aided by adult actors who do their thing but wisely stay out of the way for the most part. The characterizations are effective enough that, when the movie comes to its pat conclusion, you feel a little for these characters in this sanitized world. Kit Kittredge is about as much a fantasy as Spider-Man, but as a world created for young girls, it’s a nice place to visit.