Quick -- name three subjects you think would result in a surefire family film hit. If you said The Great Depression, hobo culture, and the social pariah realities of both, you are clearly one of the suits that saw fit to greenlight Kit Kittredge: An American Girl. Granted, this starring vehicle for Little Miss Sunshine's Abigail Breslin, does fit her perky Oscar-nominated spunk to a T. But the dour backdrop of America in the throes of a bleak fiscal future, along with the resulting rampant homelessness, is enough to give modern audiences some substantial mortgage crisis déjà-vu.
When her dad (Chris O'Donnell) loses his car dealership and heads off to Chicago to look for work, Cincinnati's own Kit Kittredge (Breslin) helps her mother (Julia Ormond) turn the family home into a boarding house. There, they take in several guests, including the snooty Mrs. Howard (Glenne Hedley) and her son Sterling (Zach Mills), wacky mobile librarian Miss Bonds (Joan Cusack), doe-eyed dance instructor Miss Dooley (Jane Krakowski), and struggling magician Mr. Berk (Stanley Tucci). When a string of crimes is linked to a rise in the transient population, Kit puts on her wannabe-reporter's hat and investigates. Her goal: to become the youngest journalist on the city paper and discover the truth of what's going on.
Bathed in the good intentions of any modern kid flick while burdened with one of the oddest fictional foundations ever (the film is an adaptation of a child's doll and some book tie-ins), Kit Kittredge: An American Girl is product placement as history discourse. It's a missive on the country's economic woes prior to WWII accented by random class prejudices. This is the kind of movie where upper-crust characters diminish the unemployed, demeaning their need for soup kitchens and constantly referencing them with a mandatory adjective of "evil." Yet unlike your typical bums, the tramps in this film are actually noble individuals with their own shanty town, code of ethics, and authentic symbolic language.
Within its formulaic collection of clichés fused to a revisionist view of poverty (naturally, it's the banker's daughter Ruthie who learns the biggest lessons from her interactions with the destitute), Kit Kittredge skimps on the very elements that inspired the movie in the first place. We expect good-natured girl power for the prepubescent set. But our heroine is a rather indirect participant in her own adventures, always sitting on the sidelines typing away or spying on others as they manipulate the plot.
Breslin is indeed the best thing about the movie, never once coming across as too contemporary for the time. But she's also so cinematically precocious, so completely a work of manufactured motion picture moralizing that she fails to come across as a real kid. Indeed, all the children in Kit Kittredge do things that feel scripted, not organic. As for the rest of the cast, it's a clash between goofballs and gloomy Gus types. Ormond and Hedley fall into the latter category, their faces so long they seem almost cartoonish. Tucci and Cusack provide the clowntime, each one putting on physical shtick airs that would seem extreme to baggy pant vaudevillians.
Director Patricia Rozema fetishizes her '30s era details, camera lovingly lingering over antiquities that seem more photographically than personally practical, and there's a laxness in the energy which turns many scenes into history lectures. In fact, Kit Kittredge feels like one of those well meaning movies they show as part of a presentation at our nation's numerous national parks. It embraces period piece accuracy while forgetting to include anything fun. It's just genial, generic wholesomeness, as bland and flavorless as such a description implies.
Dreaming of a bowl of hobo stew.