Set in 1934, "Kit Kittredge: An American Girl" hearkens back to a time when pop standards like "Paper Moon" burbled on the radio, people used manual typewriters, and a child could actually envision a viable career in newspapers. It's a soothing fantasy in 2008 - except for the home foreclosures and the parents losing their jobs. Maybe things haven't changed that much.
The movie, adapted from Valerie Tripp's series of short books and starring Abigail Breslin, is the first big-screen brand extension of the popular "American Girl" line of dolls and period accessories. The overall marketing concept is genius, really - the dolls sell American values from a time before everything in America was for sale - but the individual products are mostly inviting and intelligent. They function as counterprogramming to our modern kid culture, a safe haven from booty-calls and belly-shirts.
As such, I expect "Kit Kittredge" will be embraced by nervous moms hoping to divert their daughters from the ticket line for "You Don't Mess With the Zohan." The good news is that their daughters will thank them, as will sisters, grandmothers, aunts, and any stray brothers or fathers dragged along. The film is warm and foursquare, pleasingly honest about its timeworn emotions. The Great Depression it shows us is sugar-coated but only mildly so, which is to say it's seen through the clear, optimistic eyes of a 10-year-old.
And Breslin has a lovely matter-of-factness that smacks of gingham and Ovaltine - she's a real girl, even under the blond wig. The film begins in sunny confidence: Dad (Chris O'Donnell) still has his auto dealership in downtown Cincinnati and Mom (Julia Ormond) gently but righteously defends hobos from the wrath of garden-club ladies. Kit simply wants to be the best kid reporter in town, even if the paper's crusty editor (Wallace Shawn) won't read her copy.
We've seen her friends weeping in terror as the sheriff tosses them from their homes, though. Then Dad's dealership goes bust and he disappears to Chicago to find work; Mom is forced to take in boarders. Kit lives in a panic she'll sink to selling eggs and wearing dresses made from grain bags; as the Depression slowly grinds on, both fears will be realized.
"Kit Kittredge" reminds its audience that such small, vain worries mean little in the context of national upheaval, and it soothes us with the notion that community heals all. The boarders and a nearby hobo camp become part of Kit's extended family; not everyone's good but nearly everyone wants to be.
Director Patricia Rozema (she had the art house hit "I've Heard the Mermaids Singing" back in the late '80s) has the fortune to have a roster of fine character actors all trying to upstage each other as the boarders: Stanley Tucci as an itinerant magician, Joan Cusack as a dithery librarian, Glenne Headley raising her pinkie as a prissy mom to Kit's jug-eared friend Stirling (Zach Mills).
Jane Krakowski undulates adorably as another boarder, and there's Max Theriot as a soft-focus but decent hobo boy who teaches the kids how to read tramp signs. Ormond is a mother out of a 1940s MGM classic: wise and gentle, with the strain of keeping the world's horrors from her child visible only in her eyes.
The period ambience, comforting yet urgent, is the best part of "Kit Kittredge" - that and Breslin, who never once gets actressy - so your heart sinks a bit when a mystery subplot heaves into view and the movie goes off on a "Home Alone"-style catch-the-thieves tangent.
Kids will enjoy these scenes but they'll also recognize how over-familiar they are, whereas the rest of the film is so old-fashioned and plainspoken as to feel brand new. There's nothing remotely cool about "Kit Kittredge." That's why it's cool.