It’s the early days of The Great Depression, and aspiring cub reporter Kit Kittredge (Abigail Breslin) is pounding away on her typewriter in her Treehouse Club. Pinned to the wall are pictures of her heroes, Amelia Earhart and Eleanor Roosevelt. Her single-minded ambition is have her stories published in the local newspaper, even though she is only nine years old.
This is the simple premise of Kit Kittredge: An American Girl, a sugarcoated but engaging family film that is being test-marketed by the makers of The American Girl product line of dolls, books and magazines for a possible theatrical series. Other dolls in the series have already appeared in cable movies, and not surprisingly HBO Films is the producing muscle behind Kit Kittredge. The executive producer is Julia Roberts, giving the film additional box-office heft.
Kit lives in blissful, perpetually sun-dappled Cincinnati with her loving and resourceful mother (Julia Ormond) and caring father (Chris O’Donnell), whose car dealership just went into foreclosure. This forces him to leave home to look for work in Chicago. Despite this setback, Kit and her mother get along by taking in an assortment of boarders, and Kit continues to pester her friends at the paper to publish her stories “from a child’s point of view.” She hits upon the notion of writing about the growing problem of homeless people, hobos as they were known in the 1930s, and soon is investigating a gang of thieves posing as hobos to cover their crimes. A case of mistaken identity is cleared up, the real culprits are caught, and Kit has her story published on page one.
What makes this simple premise work as well as it does is an intelligent script by Ann Peacock (The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe) that really understands its target audience and the Nancy Drew/Hardy Boys sub-genre of mystery novels for older children. The film also has a strong central performance by Breslin. Kit Kittredge proves without a doubt that her Oscar-nominated turn in Little Miss Sunshine was not a one-off. This kid is the real deal and her acting chops in a role that demands her to be on screen for most of the 80-minute running time are impressive for one so young.
Breslin is surrounded by a strong cast of characters that includes a scenery-chewing performance by Wallace Shawn as a crusty city editor with a soft spot for Kit, Stanley Tucci as a travelling magician who is not what he seems, Joan Cusack as a wacky mobile librarian who comes to live in the house, Jane Krakowski as another one of the boarders who aspires to be a showgirl, and Max Thieroit and Willow Smith as a couple of young hobos who help solve the crime of the missing strong box.
Kit Kittredge marks the return to feature-filmmaking for director Patricia Rozema after an absence of nearly 10 years. It was filmed in Toronto last summer, although there is nothing to indicate any location other than Middle America. Most of the set-ups are cropped tight on the actors, and there’s rarely an establishing shot. The editing is occasionally choppy and certain scenes, especially those down at the hobo junction, look like they could have used a few more takes to bring some life into them, reflecting the very tight 27-day shooting schedule. IMDB lists the running time at 100 minutes, suggesting the final release print went through some serious last-minute editing.
2008 77m produced by Ellen Brothers, Lisa Roberts Gillan, Elaine Goldsmith Thomas, directed by Patricia Rozema, screenplay by Ann Peacock, based on books by Valerie Tripp, cinematography by David Boyd, edited by Julie Rogers, music by Joseph Vitarelli; with Abigail Breslin, Julia Ormond, Chris O’Donnell, Wallace Shawn, Joan Cusack, Stanley Tucci, Jane Krakowski, Willow Smith, Zach Mills, Max Thieriot.