Kit Kittredge & r & & r & by MARYANN JOHANSON & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & I & lt;/span & hate that this is so astonishing that it's worth mentioning, but it is: Almost every name in the opening credits of Kit Kittredge: An American Girl is female. The director, Patricia Rozema (the 1999 Mansfield Park); the screenwriter, Ann Peacock (The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe), working from stories by Valerie Tripp; the producers, much of the creative team -- it's almost a precise reversal of what we typically see.
Moreover, this entirely delightful movie features a little girl as its protagonist. Which means, alas, that its audience will probably be mostly little girls. And that should not be. There's no reason why, if little girls are capable of enjoying the adventures of Harry Potter, little boys shouldn't be capable of enjoying the adventures of Kit Kittredge. I hope parents will expose their sons to this, because they might learn a few things about perseverance, friendship, kindness and generosity.
As Kit, Abigail Breslin (Little Miss Sunshine) is spunky and adorable here, though not in that annoying, overly precocious way of sitcom kids. She's a 9-year-old living in Cincinnati in the early 1930s, just as the Great Depression is really revving up. Because Kit is involved with school and her tree house and her grand desire to be a newspaper journalist, the privations of the larger world don't impinge much on her little realm -- until they do, when the car dealership of her beloved father (Chris O'Donnell) goes under and he is forced to leave town to look for work. Kit and her mother (Julia Ormond) are compelled to take paying lodgers into their large and rambling home just to pay the mortgage.
And so what starts out as a semi-serious little adventure tale morphs gradually into sweet comedy, as the array of borders unfolds into a comic ensemble that includes Joan Cusack's librarian, Stanley Tucci's stage magician and others. In fact, by the end, I'm tempted to call the whole shebang practically Little Rascals-esque, as Kit and her friends investigate the mystery of the "hobo crime spree" that has been dogging Cincinnati and the surrounding area. I wouldn't have predicted that the charming and low-key dramedy of the open segment of the film would have evolved into the silly chases of the end, but it's not an unpleasant road to have gone down. Small children will certainly be more enthralled than adults, but it's no chore at all to bear witness to Kit's resourcefulness and ingenuity. I even laughed more than once. (Please don't tell.)
Alas, some children -- and adults -- may feel the sting of recognition in more ways than one here, as family homes get foreclosed upon and belts tighten more than comfort will grant. Who'd have thought that stories of the Great Depression would feel actually relevant and pertinent again? But there's no question that the universality of Kit Kittredge's compassion and easygoing high-mindedness is a soothing balm to counter its underlying harshness. In depicting how history can repeat itself, Kit Kittredge leaves us feeling not downhearted but uplifted. When times are tough, it seems to say, even the smallest among us can remain true to our ideals. (Rated G)