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Kit Kittredge: An American Girl (G) ***

Abigail Breslin in a scene from "Kit Kittredge: An American Girl" from HBO Films.
Abigail Breslin in a scene from "Kit Kittredge: An American Girl" from HBO Films.

By Rene Rodriguez, The Miami Herald

Walking in to see Kit Kittredge: An American Girl, I was unaware the movie was spun off from a popular line of toy dolls — more than 14 million of them have been sold. Nor did I know about the anticipation and excitement many little girls have for the movie, which is the fourth in the series (the previous three, made for TV, are available on DVD).

I still have no opinion on the toys, but I can definitely vouch for the film living up to expectations. Shot with the burnished, luxurious cinematography of a big-budget movie, and cast with actors who never treat the material as if it were beneath them, Kit Kittredge: An American Girl is a thoroughly satisfying and engaging children’s picture that never forgets those kids probably didn’t get to the theater by themselves.

Director Patricia Rozema and screenwriter Ann Peacock avoid condescending to their target audience — or, for that matter, to their adult guardians — by treating their child protagonists with care and respect. It helps, too, that they have the amazing Abigail Breslin (Little Miss Sunshine) in the lead role of 9-year-old Kit, a bright and winsome girl in Depression-era Cincinnati who aspires to be a reporter for the Cincinnati Register.

Kit is constantly submitting to the paper her stories, such as a piece on the World’s Fair, without much luck. But as the Depression starts to affect the lives of her closest friends — and then, inevitably, her own family — Kit’s priorities change. Her father (Chris O’Donnell) goes to Chicago to find work and promises to return, but doesn’t. Her mother (Julia Ormond), in a desperate attempt to save their home, starts taking in boarders, such as a traveling librarian (Joan Cusack), a magician (Stanley Tucci) and a fallen socialite (Glenn Headley) awaiting word from her own husband, who has gone to New York in search of employment.

The backdrop is grim, and to its credit, the movie does not sugarcoat its portrayal of how the Depression affected the day-to-day lives of upper middle-class Americans who lost everything in the span of a month and had to figure out how to push forward.

The filmmakers allow the story to unfold entirely through the point of view of Kit, who may not fully understand the severity of the situation, but is also more aware and resourceful than the adults around her realize. Kit Kittredge: An American Girl sends its heroine and her friends on several adventures, including a Nancy Drew-ish one involving some stolen valuables, but it’s the movie’s overall tone — the innocence of children, as well as their surprising resiliency — that elevates the film into something far more valuable than a feature-length commercial for toys.

Cast: Abigail Breslin, Julia Ormond, Chris O’Donnell, Joan Cusack, Madison Davenport, Zach Mills, Glenn Headley, Jane Krakowski, Stanley Tucci, Wallace Shawn

Director: Patricia Rozema

Screenwriter: Ann Peacock. Based on the books by Valerie Tripp

Producers: Elaine Goldsmith-Thomas, Lisa Gillan, Ellen L. Brothers

A Picturehouse release. Running time: 100 minutes. No offensive material. Playing at area theaters.