Kit Kittredge -- An American Girl *1/2

“Kit Kittredge: An American Girl” is just what every little girl is looking for: A depression-era drama about families losing their homes and livelihood, and the thieves who steal from the newly impoverished for their own selfish gains.

Wait. That doesn’t sound like something a young girl would want to see. Too bad nobody told that to the makers of “Kit Kittredge,” who likely have never heard of Hannah Montana. And if they have heard of Miley Cyrus’ uber-famous alter ego, they’ve ignored everything about her appeal in this woefully off-base kiddy drama.

Kit (Abigail Breslin, “Little Miss Sunshine”) is an ambitious 10 year-old who wants to be a reporter. She has good friends and a loving family, and her precociousness is earnest without being too cutesy annoying. But the year is 1934, and the Great Depression has hit her hometown of Cincinnati. Otherwise well-to-do folks are losing their jobs, including Kit’s dad (Chris O’Donnell), whose car dealership goes out of business.

When dad leaves for Chicago to find work, mom (Julia Ormond) takes in “boarders” to help pay the bills. They include: A magician named Jefferson J. Berk (Stanley Tucci), mobile librarian Miss Bond (Joan Cusack), the testy Mrs. Howard (Glenne Headly) and the husband-searching Miss Dooley (Jane Krakowski). Things are okay for a while, but when jewels and other valuables are stolen, Kit’s friends Will (Max Thieriot) and Countee (Willow Smith, Jada/Will’s daughter) are blamed. She’s positive they’re innocent, and puts her reporter skills to work to set them free. 

The appeal of a girl solving a crime that bumbling policemen can’t crack is an intriguing one. “Nancy Drew” had more success with the formula last summer because Nancy was a bit older than Kit, the story didn’t have such a morose setting and Bruce Willis had an amusing cameo. “Kit,” which is based on the “American Girl” dolls and the children’s books by Valerie Tripp, is aimed at a slightly younger audience and doesn’t have the whimsical playfulness needed to make it endearing.

What’s more, just about every upbeat and optimistic scene is followed by one of crushing reality. It’s great when Kit’s dad promises that everything will be okay, but sad when he skips town to look for work elsewhere. It’s fun when Jefferson puts on a magic show, but awful when valued possessions are stolen in the next scene. And so on. Everything good is followed by something bad. Reflective of the yin and yang of life as this may be, it’s probably not something kids are ready for – or should have to deal with.

It’s laudable that director Patricia Rozema (“Mansfield Park”) is trying to inform youngsters about life during the Great Depression. And sure, some pre-teen girls may identify with Kit’s ingenuity and find the movie a pleasant delight. But others will no doubt be depressed and sad by film’s end. So congrats, Patricia Rozema, for making little girls sad. Hope you’re happy with yourself.

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