On the subject of Kit Kittredge: An American Girl, a colleague rolled his eyes and snorted, "Can you believe it! A movie based on a doll?"
Hello? We've had movies based on toys (Transformers), theme-park rides (Pirates of the Caribbean, and media franchises (Pokémon). What's so unusual about a movie based on a doll?
And though Kit may be that, more relevant is that she is a literary heroine, as vital and vivid as Hermione Granger. In the buy-the-doll, learn-her-history marketing of American Girl, Kit is also the protagonist of young adult novelettes that Moms and Dads like reading as much as their seven-to-11 year-old daughters daughters do.
Not only does Kit have literary pedigree, she has good values.
But good values don't guarantee good movies. While the film starring Abigail Breslin as a resourceful 10-year-old is faithful to the Kit books, it's pokey where it should be perky.
Kit, the book, is a view of a transforming event in American history through the eyes of a tween, herself transforming. Kit, the movie, is a a cavalcade of hobos, forgotten men and gallant gals. It's admirable, always, pleasant in passages, but never fully engages. Is it that Breslin is a better ensemble player than central character? That Kit's story is so episodic?
In 1934, as legions of Americans become jobless and homeless during the Depression, Kit, daughter of a Cincinnati car dealer, thinks economic hardship is something that happens to others.
But when her father (Chris O'Donnell) loses his job and her mother (Julia Ormond) converts their comfy home into a boardinghouse in order to make ends meet, Kit ditches the social snobbery and unselfishly pitches in.
And while she knows it's a comeuppance, in two meanings of the word, to vacate her cozy bedroom and have to sleep in the drafty attic, Kit also knows that despite her privation, her plight looks cushy to the kids, homeless and hungry, who squat in tent encampments.
At such moments when she shows us a child startled by an emerging conscience, director Patricia Rozema distills what's so powerful about the books.
There are precious few such moments in Rozema's film, which is episodic and pleasant instead of emotional and poignant. And because there are precious fewer films where the focus is on young women, I don't want to harsh on a film made with obvious love and respect. Still, this underserved audience deserves better.
Contact movie critic Carrie Rickey at 215-854-5402 or email@example.com. Read her blog, Flickgrrl, at http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/flickgrrl/
An American Girl **1/2
Directed by Patricia Rozema, written by Ann Peacock, based on the Kit Kittredge books by Valerie Tripp, distributed by Picturehouse. With Abigail Breslin, Julia Ormond, Joan Cusack, Stanley Tucci and Chris O'Donnell.
Running time: 1 hour, 40 mins.
Parent's guide: G (mild suspense)
Playing at: area theaters