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Originally published Wednesday, July 2, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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"Kit Kittredge" dishes sweet history, life lessons

In a summer filled with superheroes, special effects and "Sex and the City" stilettos, it's downright refreshing to review a movie whose...

Seattle Times movie critic

Movie review 3 stars

"Kit Kittredge: An American Girl," with Abigail Breslin, Joan Cusack, Madison Davenport, Glenne Headly, Jane Krakowski, Zach Mills, Colin Mochrie, Chris O'Donnell, Julia Ormond, Wallace Shawn, Willow Smith, Max Thieriot, Stanley Tucci. Directed by Patricia Rozema, from a screenplay by Ann Peacock, based on the "Kit Kittredge" stories by Valerie Tripp. 100 minutes. Rated G. Several theaters.

Movie review 3 stars

In a summer filled with superheroes, special effects and "Sex and the City" stilettos, it's downright refreshing to review a movie whose most audacious effect is Abigail Breslin donning a wee cloche hat.

"Kit Kittredge: An American Girl" is based on one of those cute if wildly overpriced American Girl dolls (yes, we're now at a point in civilization when the life story of a doll can greenlight a movie), but don't hold that against it: This is a sweet, G-rated story of 1930s girl power, with nary a princess in sight.

Young Kit (Breslin), whose real name is Margaret Mildred, lives in Depression-era Cincinnati with her loving parents (Chris O'Donnell, Julia Ormond) and dreams of becoming a journalist one day, banging out stories on her old typewriter and pestering the local newspaper editor (Wallace Shawn) to put them in print. (Contemporary kids watching the film may need to be reminded why she didn't just post them on her blog.)

Times are tough: Kit's dad loses his job and needs to leave town to find work; her mother has to take in boarders; her neighbors have their house foreclosed. And there's a mystery afoot — a crime spree in Kit's neighborhood, said to be instigated by local hobos. Kit, who has befriended a sweet-natured homeless boy (Max Thieriot), is dismayed by the slandering of the hobo community, and this miniature Nancy-Drew-with-a-typewriter sets out to find the real story.

The mystery gets resolved without much drama (grown-ups, and some kids, will see the resolution coming a mile away), but "Kit Kittredge" isn't really about plot; it's about evoking, with its dusty light and cluttered interiors, a time and place. The historical context is carefully spelled out for its grade-school audience, who will identify with Kit's longing to keep her family together and her friends close. Played with trademark sparkly eagerness by Breslin, Kit emerges as a role model — a smart, happy girl who dreams big, and whose idols (we see pictures of Amelia Earhart and Babe Didrickson pinned up in her treehouse) aren't movie stars and models but tough-minded women who followed their own unique dreams.

Director Patricia Rozema ("Mansfield Park," "I've Heard the Mermaids Singing"), working from a screenplay by Ann Peacock, surrounds Breslin with a smart cast, whose wit saves the movie on its occasional dives into melodrama. (Joseph Vitarelli's score tends, alas, toward the soapy.) Joan Cusack is at her loopy best as eccentric boarder Miss Bond; Jane Krakowski vamps charmingly (and G-ratedly) as the fetching Miss Dooley; Stanley Tucci hams it up as resident magician Mr. Berk. But this film's heart is Kit and her friends, and the lessons history teaches us. "The Depression had changed each of our lives," says a reflective Kit at the end. "It made us struggle, but it made us strong."

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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