Any parent who’s been dragged to an American Girl Place by a daughter eager to shop for historical dolls and their matching clothes and furniture will appreciate the irony of a movie based on one of those characters that preaches a message of thrift and self-sufficiency. But in a summer of superheroes, it’s refreshing to see a mere mortal-a little girl, at that-persevere through hard times, achieve her goals, and save the day.
It’s 1934 in Cincinnati, and the effects of the Depression are beginning to reach 10-year-old Kit (Abigail Breslin) and her friends. When Kit’s father (Chris O’Donnell) loses his business, he heads to Chicago to find work to support the family. Kit stays behind with her mother (Julia Ormond), who converts their home into a boardinghouse that becomes occupied by tenants, including a suave magician (Stanley Tucci), a flirtatious dance teacher (Jane Krakowski), and a ditzy mobile librarian (Joan Cusack). Humiliated at first by her circumstances, Kit continues to pursue her dream of becoming a reporter, and although many people around her accuse “hoboes” of being criminals and freeloaders, she befriends Will and Countee, two young homeless people who come to Kit’s house seeking work. When Will (Max Thieriot) is accused of stealing, Kit sets out with her friends Ruthie and Stirling to prove his innocence.
The film wears its politics on its sleeve (FDR and Robin Hood are heroes), and much of the humor falls flat. Most of the characters are so one-dimensional that the normally talented cast is left with little to do-although the movie does feature good comic turns from Cusack and Wallace Shawn, who plays the local newspaper editor. While the film presents a sanitized view of the Depression in which racism apparently doesn’t exist, kids will relate to the fear of family separation and dislocation, especially in a time when bank foreclosures are once again common. Despite these flaws, one can’t help but be charmed by a film in which compassion and justice triumph and a girl gets to realize her ambitions-with hardly a smart-alecky word spoken or punch thrown.