Don't let visions of screaming, doll-wielding pre-tweens descending on American Girl Place stores, beleaguered parents in tow, bias you against this tie-in film, the fourth American Girl feature and the first made for the big screen. Based on Valerie Tripp's stories about an intrepid 9-year-old from Depression-era Ohio who yearns to be a reporter, the movie stays true to the American Girl empire's over-arching mission: To teach youngsters about the experiences of young girls throughout American history. It's fun, fast-paced, educational entertainment that's fit for the whole family -- American boys included.
Cincinnati, Ohio, 1934: The Great Depression has dealt a hammer blow to the entire country, but though young Margaret Mildred "Kit" Kittredge (Abigail Breslin) can see the changes it's brought to her leafy neighborhood -- homes lost to banks, fathers looking for work in distant cities, hobos camped on the outskirts of town and wandering the streets in search of odd jobs and food -- the economic crisis has yet to touch her affluent family. Kit continues to attend school with her friends, induct new members into her exclusive Treehouse Club and pester "Cincinnati Register" city editor Mr. Gibson (Wallace Shawn) to print her first-hand account of the Chicago World's Fair. Then comes the day everything changes: Kit's father, Jack (Chris O'Donnell), returns home with the terrible news that the bank has foreclosed on his car dealership and that he, too, must leave for Chicago to find another job. Before he goes, Jack offers Kit some sound advice: No matter how bad things seem, he tells her, Kit must keep her chin up and not let the bad times beat her. Now on her own, Kit's resourceful mother, Margaret (Julia Ormond), forestalls foreclosure on the family home by taking in boarders, and soon the house is filled with host of eccentric new residents: flirty, high-kicking dance instructor Miss Dooley (Jane Krakowski); mobile librarian Miss Bond (Joan Cusack); stage magician Mr. Berk (Stanley Tucci); the Kittredge's once proud and prim former neighbor Mrs. Howard (Glenn Hedley), now brought low by financial misfortune; and Mrs. Howard's son, Stirling (Zach Mills). And just when it seems things can't get more unsettled, a local crime wave hits Kittredges: The money Margaret has managed to save for mortgage payments is stolen. Suspicion immediately falls upon the desperate hobos, particularly young Will Shepherd (Max Theriot) and his sidekick, Countee (Willow Smith), who've been working for food around the Kittredge place. But Kit knows Will couldn't be the culprit, and turns her journalistic skills to finding the real thief.
Given the inspiration behind the American Girl stories, it's not surprising that cute outfits -- even when they're Depression pinafores made of feed sacks -- fare prominently featured. But that's about as far as product-placement goes. Director Patricia Rozema and the film's producers -- who include Julia Roberts and her sister, Lisa Roberts Gillan -- actually seem concerned about teaching modern-day kids something about the hard realities of Depression life. Vintage autos, beautifully appointed interiors and a soundtrack featuring contemporary re-recordings of period classics like "Ain't We Got Fun" and "Paper Moon" capture the era, while the script by Ann Peacock (THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA: THE LION, THE WITCH AND THE WARDROBE) imparts serious messages about the strength of optimism and character and the dangers of scapegoating the less fortunate when times get tough. Great lessons from a good family film.
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