Raking through muck

Cub reporter at heart of muddled 'American Girl'

C

July 02, 2008|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,Sun movie critic

The timing might be right for Kit Kittredge: An American Girl, a tale of a plucky young Cincinnati lass (Abigail Breslin) who triumphs as a girl reporter during the Great Depression.

It's inspirational to see any movie about a grade-school girl who has some wits to keep about her. And Kit's attempt to maintain honor and high spirits while her dad (Chris O'Donnell) leaves Cincinnati to find work in Chicago should resonate with youngsters whose mother and father are searching for jobs while canceling or cutting short vacations and road trips.

But with all the good will in the world, I couldn't warm up to Kit Kittredge. The movie is like a 1930s or 1940s short about Americans pulling together, stretched out to feature length.

Everything about the physical design has character and flavor, from the artfully pieced-together costumes of comfortable folks feeling the pinch to Kit's deluxe treehouse, which has a roomy, middle-class magic to it.

Sadly, under the direction of Patricia Rozema, who ruined Jane Austen's Mansfield Park in 1999, the story unfolds in clumps. What's worse, the performances degenerate into broad-stroke caricatures fit for a worn-out touring company of Annie. Breslin's feistiness and sadness are so overblown you expect her to start wailing: "The sun will come out tomorrow."

The movie strives for the tension and humor of a comedy-streaked melodrama, but Rozema is flat-footed at slapstick and all thumbs at suspense. How wrong has Kit Kittredge gone? In Valerie Tripp's straightforward, unaffected book Meet Kit (the movie is based on several of Tripp's stories), Kit's brother tells her their dad has lost his car dealership. In Kit Kittredge, she discovers the bad news when her class helps out at a soup kitchen and Mr. Kittredge is one of the customers.

When Kit's mom (Julia Ormond) turns their home into a boardinghouse, her customers include an intense magician (Stanley Tucci), a sexy dancer (Jane Krakowski) and a clumsy mobile librarian (Joan Cusack), who, in a typically unfunny sight gag, plows her bookmobile into the Kittredges' new fence. Each has "wacky eccentric" stamped on his or her forehead.

Rozema lacks the skill or taste to stylize the material or maintain a variety of moods; the film veers toward broad musical comedy, sans music, by default. Kit breaks into the newspaper business with a story that propels her into a hobo camp, but the newspaper offices and the vagrants' makeshift village are as devoid of pungency as the placid Kittredge family manse.

In the heroine's once-cozy milieu, buying hens, selling eggs and making dresses out of feed sacks certify families declasse. Yet Rozema wrings neither humor nor pathos from such trivial snobbery. She's not a yarn-spinner; she's a message-monger. When a young hobo named Will Shepherd (Max Thierot) and his even younger traveling companion, Countee (Willow Smith), become the Kittredges' handy boys, the movie turns into a blunt cautionary tale of prejudice, with hobos standing in for all who are socially stigmatized and politically oppressed.

Full of ingredients that only fitfully cohere, the movie itself is a sort of hobo stew. Yet with a fan base built on a popular line of dolls, accessories and books, Kit Kittredge may be the girl's night out of choice, at least for the 7 p.m. crowd. It's Sex and th e City for little women.

michael.sragow@baltsun.com

ONLINE

Watch a preview and see more photos from Kit Kittredge: An American Girl at baltimoresun.com/kit

Kit Kittredge: An American Girl

(Picturehouse) Starring Abigail Breslin, Chris O'Donnell, Julia Ormond, Stanley Tucci, Joan Cusack. Directed by Patricia Rozema. Rated G. Time 101 minutes.

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