It would grieve me to snipe at a movie whose 10-year-old heroine wants to be a print journalist, whose script urges us to be sympathetic to people less fortunate than ourselves, whose tone celebrates perseverance and courage and many of the other cardinal virtues.
But I must.
“Kit Kittredge: An American Girl” has its heart in the right place and its head shoved well down into a box of clichés. It treats its target audience of preteen girls as though they're not just innocent or inexperienced but unintelligent. It begins as a serious story about The Depression and degenerates into broad comedy about bumbling, harmless thieves.
The title character (Abigail Breslin) wants to write for The Cincinnati Register in 1934, five years into the nation's worst economic slide. Her dad (Chris O'Donnell) loses his job selling luxury cars and moves to Chicago to look for work, leaving his wife (Julia Ormond) to take in boarders and hire two juvenile hobos (Max Theriot and Willow Smith, Will's daughter) to do the handywork.
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A rash of thefts around the city have been attributed to hobos. But when the Kittredges' mortgage money vanishes, Kit realizes one of the boarders may have had a hand in this and the other robberies, so she investigates with her pals.
Writer Ann Peacock, who adapted Valerie Tripp's stories, starts promisingly. We see the fear of poverty crushing Kit's neighbors and then her family, the humiliation of facing schoolkids who mock their newly troubled classmate. Clever small touches may resonate later with viewers: Smith's character is named Countee Garvey, for poet Countee Cullen and back-to-Africa activist Marcus Garvey.
But after 30 minutes, the movie gets a severe case of the duhs. People who masterminded thefts across America become so stupid they can't remember where they buried their loot. Clean-faced, soft-spoken hobos are too honest to take offered sandwiches until they've put in a day's labor. (No alcoholics or sick people in hobo camps, just folks helpin' folks.) Rich people are all snobs, and the law – represented by a gruff sheriff who tells his hobo suspect not to leave town! – is stubborn and mean.
Even the newspaper's city editor is the usual gruff stereotype, though his heart of gold emerges when he brings Kit her first printed article on Thanksgiving night. (The movie's lone original touch is the perverse suggestion of a budding romance between this wizened grumpus, played by 64-year-old Wallace Shawn, and Kit's sweet dance teacher, 39-year-old Jane Krakowski.)
Director Patricia Rozema too often lets her actors do less or more than is necessary. Ormond and Theriot are washouts; Joan Cusack, who plays a librarian, squawks and flaps her arms like a stork that has been given a suppository. Breslin keeps her cool and anchors the film in reality each time the camera crosses her face, but she fights a losing battle.