Dir: Patricia Rozema . US. 2008. 100 mins.
Emotionally affecting but dramatically wobbly, Kit Kittredge: An American Girl was made with young girls in mind, but would have been far more effective had it shown enough courage not to play down to its audience. With that said, this adaptation of the popular American Girl book series starring Abigail Breslin touchingly illustrates the sting of poverty during the Depression without overly resorting to sentimentality or childish shenanigans.
Kit Kittredge opens in limited release in the US on June 20, aiming at the female preteen crowd and their parents. The film lacks the fantasy elements or effects work of recent literary adaptations such as Bridge To Terabithia ($82m domestic) or Nim's Island ($46m) (which also starred Breslin) and will have to rely on the books for its major marketing hook. With the goal of becoming a live-action family alternative to mainstream animated blockbusters, Kit will need good reviews and strong word-of-mouth to help keep its head above water. International prospects look equally fragile, with Breslin slowly making the transition from supporting child roles to star pre-teen vehicles. Look for ancillary performance to be solid.
Living in Cincinnati, Ohio, during the height of the Depression, aspiring 10-year-old writer Kit Kittredge (Breslin) longs to be a reporter for the local newspaper, while her mother (Ormond) and father (O'Donnell) try to keep food on the table. But when her dad loses his job and must relocate to Chicago to search for work, Kit and her mother reluctantly take in boarders to pay the mortgage, including a friendly hobo named Will (Max Thieriot) who is soon accused of a burglary Kit knows he didn't commit.
Though suffused with a soft, sweet tone, Kit Kittredge has an undeniably potent emotional core. The financial hardships visiting Kit's friends - and then, eventually, her own family - are presented with a straightforward candour that's refreshing. While director Patricia Rozema (Mansfield Park) doesn't attempt to create a gut-wrenchingly dark portrait of economic desperation, she and screenwriter Ann Peacock (who also worked on the first Chronicles Of Narnia instalment) should be commended for at least illustrating how poverty rips apart families, creating a sense of shame in the less fortunate while provoking pity and revulsion in those better off. Admittedly, this is still a children's film, but its sophisticated take on such a tricky topic is rare in an entertainment geared toward young people.
But if Rozema shows a flair for emotional nuance in that regard, it's disappointing that when the film's story starts rolling, she resorts to an overly simplistic dramatic approach that doesn't show nearly the same amount of complexity and grace. Because hobos are so stigmatised, a theft of valuables from Kit's home immediately spurs suspicion that Will is involved. Kit and her friends work to clear his name using her budding investigative-journalism skills, but the reveal of the real thieves isn't satisfyingly developed. Furthermore, once Kit uncovers the criminals, Kit Kittredge becomes a tamer version of the Home Alone films where enterprising young people foil bumbling adults in preposterous ways. One wishes this film had shown more faith in its audience's intelligence throughout instead of losing its nerve halfway through.
The young cast is mostly solid, with Breslin boasting decent dramatic chops without trying to overdo her character's spunk. As her friend Stirling, Zach Mills continues to show the promise he first demonstrated in last year's Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium : He has a real knack for playing vulnerable boys who are lovable but not cutesy. And Thieriot (fresh from February's Jumper) undoubtedly has a heartthrob's presence.
The adult cast, surprisingly, is a little shakier. As Kit's parents, Ormond and O'Donnell are quite effective, strong and gentle in their love for their precocious daughter. But too many of the other actors seem to have been picked simply because they fit a certain type: Wallace Shawn plays yet another beleaguered fussbudget, while Joan Cusack oversells her character's ditzy haplessness. Kit Kittredge allows its child protagonists to feel like complete human beings, but some of its adults aren't quite there yet.
New Line Cinema
Red Om Films
New Line International
Ellen L. Brothers
(based on the Kit Kittredge stories by Valerie Tripp)
Director of photography