Kit Kittredge: An American Girl
Directed By: Patricia Rozema
Cast: Abigail Breslin, Julia Ormond, Chris O'Donnell, Joan Cusack, Stanley Tucci, Glenne Headly, Jane Krakowski, Wallace Shawn, Max Thierot, Willow Smith
Abigail Breslin plays the title character in Kit Kittredge: An American Girl. Kit is a ten year old girl with aspirations of becoming a reporter. She lives in circa 1934 Cincinnati, Ohio with her car salesman father (O'Donnell) and devoted mother (Ormond). As the film opens, many of Kit's friends and neighbors are confronting unemployment, absent fathers, and evictions. An increasing number of hobos are also appearing in town, and Kit befriends two juvenile day laborers named Will (Thierot) and Countee (Smith). Financial woes ultimately hit her family when "the bank" closes down her father's car dealership. With her father out of work and heading to Chicago in hopes of finding some, Kit and her mother must take in boarders in order to pay their mortgage. These include a diverse range of interesting characters including a magician (Tucci), a dance instructor (Krakowski), and a mobile librarian (Cusack). They also take in Kit's classmate, Stirling (Mills), and his proud mother, Louise (Headly), who have apparently been abandoned by Stirling's unemployed father. A rash of hobo crimes culminates in the theft of the Kittredge's life savings, which puts them on the verge of eviction. Evidence seems to point to Will, but Kit is convinced that he is innocent and becomes determined to identify the real culprit and save her home.
While a number of films tied to the "American Girl" line of dolls have been produced in the past few years, this is the first one that has been released theatrically. While "toy spin-off" and "DTV series" are normally sure-fire indications of an absence of quality, Kit Kittredge is a marked exception to either of those rules.
The film, with a screenplay by Ann Peacock based on the Kit Kittredge stories of Valerie Tripp, tells an engaging story with intriguing characters while painting a vivid picture of what American families endured during the Great Depression. The screenplay occasionally betrays its roots in multiple stories by including sudden episodic plot developments and revelations that seem to come from nowhere and leave almost instantly with little impact on the main through-line of the plot. This amounts to a minor criticism as such instances are brief, and frequently entertaining. For the most part the screenplay balances multiple dramatic tones and plotlines deftly, never making them seem as complicated an aggregation as they are when reviewed in retrospect.
Director Patricia Rozema takes an atypically even handed approach to the material, incorporating some of the expected wish fulfillment aspects of most children's literature while not excising the darker elements inherent to the Depression-era setting and dilemmas faced by the characters. The production did not skimp on the period details in terms of costumes, sets, and props, which are rendered vividly. The production design and photography emphasize earth tones suggesting a sepia-tinted old photograph without resorting to heavily desaturating the image. The photography is often pushed a stop or two on the interiors, and lighting designs are all based on realistic sources giving it a somewhat soft and grainy look that underlines its period aesthetic.
The considerable physical production values are matched by the highly talented cast filled with top-notch actors in supporting roles such as Julia Ormond, Joan Cusack, Glenne Headly, Stanley Tucci, and Wallace Shawn. Rozema also coaxes fine performances out of the film's juvenile actors such as Max Thierot, Zack Mills, and the scarily talented Abigail Breslin, who carries the film through its many mood shifts including wistful nostalgia, family melodrama, comedy, mystery, and suspense.
The video transfer on the top side of the single-sided single-layered DVD-10 fills the entire 16:9 enhanced frame. While there is a certain amount of video "grain" that interacts with the natural film grain from time to time due to compression issues, it is minor in nature, and will only be noticeable on very large displays. Without devoting an extra layer for the film's presentation, this is about as good as the film is going to look on standard DVD. The flip side offers a 4:3 reformatted presentation that I did not review.
Audio is courtesy of an English Dolby Digital 5.1 track encoded at 384 kbps which presents the surprisingly dimensional mix with very good fidelity. The surround channels are used primarily for ambient support of effects and for the music score, which is frequently mixed with discrete instruments in the rear channels. Dialog and specific sound effects are primarily kept in the front hemisphere. While normally centered, wide stereo effects are used when speakers and sound sources are off screen.
On disc extras are limited to three very brief trailers for other American Girl-themed DVDs. They are presented in 4:3 video with Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo audio. Titles and running times are as follows:
- American Girl: Felicity (:17)
- American Girl: Molly (:22)
- Samantha: An American Girl Holiday (:17)
The disc also contains PC DVD-ROM access to web-based features. These consist of two featurettes and a collection of deleted scenes that are downloadable as "wmv" files in either of two quality settings labeled as "low" and "high" bandwidth. The DVD-ROM features are only accessible to Windows XP or Vista users. Macs are not supported. All are presented in 4:3 video letterboxed to 16:9 with two-channel stereo audio. Details follow:
- Becoming an American Girl: Casting (13:55) focuses on the four girls who were selected from thousands who went to open casting calls in New York, Chicago, and LA. Thet are Elisabeth Perez (Eleanor), Brieanne Jansen (Frances), Jordan Raclley (Lily Ann), and Erin Hilgartener (Florence). The featurette covers the series of auditions, the rehearsal process, and their on-set experience including costumes, hair and makeup, and shooting. Interview participants include all four girls plus Director Patricia Rozema, Producer Elaine Goldsmith Thomas, and Costume Designer Trysha Bakker
- Kit Kittredge: An American Girl: HBO First Look (14:32) is a promotional behind the scenes featurette compiled from onset footage and severeal epk-style interview clips from the cast and crew. Its intent was clearly promotional so it lacks a great deal of depth, but there are some interesting behind the scenes tidbits sprinkled throughout. The featurette is split into sections by on-screen titles with teh following self-explanatory headings: The Story, The Cast of Characters, Open Auditions, The Director, The 1930s, The Treehouse, The Hobo Jungle, and Picturehouse Presents. The "Open Auditions" and "The Treehouse" segments use a lot of the same interview footage as the Becoming an American Girl: Casting featurette. On-amera comments are provided by actors Stanley Tucci, Chris O'Donnell, Julia Ormond, Joan Cusack, Jane Krakowski, Abigail Breslin, Max Thierot, Madison Davenport, Zach Mills, Glenne Headly, Wallace Shawn, Brieanne Jansen, Jordan Rackley, Erin Hilgartner, Elisabeth Perez, Colin Mochre, and Dylan Smith. Comments from non-cast members include Producer Lisa Gillan, Producer Elaine Goldsmith-Thomas, Director Patricia Rozema, Costume Designer Trysha Bakker, Production Designer Peter Cosco, and Picture Car Captain William Boyd.
- Additional Scenes (4:23) cover two segments representing an excised subplot from the film. In the first segment, identified as "Scenes 38-40 Kit and Ruthie Fight", Kit and Ruthie have a blow-up about Ruthie's father's bank taking Kit's father's car dealership. The second segment, identified as "Scenes 52-53 Mom talks to Kit about Ruthie through Kit and Ruthie make up deals with their reconciliation several weeks later. The finished film suggests tension between some of the kids and the Ruthie, but Kit always sticks up for her.
The double-sided single-layered DVD-10 comes in a standard Amaray case with an insert containing the code for unlocking the reduced price digital download.
Kit Kittredge: An American Girl defies its toy tie-in origins to emerge as a superior family entertainment with a top-tier cast and high production values. The DVD is presented with a good 16:9 enhanced transfer that suffers a bit from being confined to a single DVD layer. Extras consist of a collection of trailers for previous American Girl branded DVDs, Windows-only DVD-ROM content including two behind the scenes featurettes and a couple of deleted scenes, and a code for unlocking a reduced-price Windows-only download of a digital copy of the film.