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‘Kit Kittredge’ brilliantly captures a bygone era

The first two-thirds of “Kit Kittredge: An American Girl” are engrossing for both parents and kids. Unfortunately, the film insists on a crime plot that simply goes nowhere.

“Kit Kittredge: An American Girl” does such a fascinatingly evocative job at showing us the Great Depression through the eyes of a young girl that it’s disappointing when the movie feels the need to get bogged down in a plot about stolen money and a crime wave. It’s like being dragged away from an exquisitely unusual little landmark by a tour guide who insists on herding you through a lackluster museum.

Nonetheless, the first two-thirds or so of “Kit Kittredge” are so expertly executed that it’s a movie for parents and their daughters — and sons, for that matter — to enjoy together. As the nation once again faces financial turmoil and a mortgage crisis, this story of endurance and persistence in the face of economic ruin should reverberate with contemporary youngsters.

Young Kit (Abigail Breslin) lives in Cincinnati with her parents (Chris O’Donnell and Julia Ormond) and dreams of getting a job with the local newspaper. Her stories fail to rouse the interest of the persnickety editor (Wallace Shawn), but real-life events soon distract Kit from her ambitions. Dad loses his car dealership and eventually strikes out for Chicago in the hope of finding work. Mom has to take in boarders to make ends meet, and Kit finds herself cooking and cleaning and helping out.

But all is not drudgery: Young train-hoppers Will (Max Thieriot) and Countee (Willow Smith) start doing household chores in exchange for food, becoming close friends of the family in the process. And the new boarders include a man-hungry dance instructor (Jane Krakowski), a “mobile librarian” (Joan Cusack) who’s a menace in traffic, and an oily magician (Stanley Tucci).

Director Patricia Rozema — who with films like “Mansfield Park” and “I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing” has shown herself to be a brilliant chronicler of the lives of women with artistic ambitions — does a terrific job of capturing Kit’s world and allowing audiences to experience the joys and sorrows of the 1930s from a child’s perspective. From Kit’s embarrassment at seeing her father at a soup kitchen to her triumph over mean schoolmates who mock the less fortunate, the first two-thirds of “Kit Kittredge” often resembles Spike Lee’s underrated “Crooklyn” or even Fellini’s “Amarcord” as a memory piece that mixes sentimentality and warmth with cruelty and heartbreak.

Alas, this being a Hollywood production, it’s not enough to just make a movie about characters and feelings — we have to have a plot, and so we get a running undercurrent about a “hobo crime wave.” While it’s interesting that “Kit Kittredge” examines how people’s prejudices can be stirred by a mob mentality, the storyline ultimately leads up to the theft of Kit’s mother’s moneybox and Kit eventually saving the day.

Breslin's Kit makes a strong heroine—there's a great scene where she writes an angry, self-pitying letter to her father before taking a deep breath, starting over, and writing a new missive that accentuates the positive—but Kit was already fascinating and admirable before becoming a sleuth. "Kit Kittredge" boasts a stellar cast and spot-on art direction, but it's also saddled with a distressing failure of nerve. Had it been allowed to follow its own lead and not hew to Screenwriting 101 standards, the film might even have been a classic.