I had one of the original three American Girl dolls in the mid-'80s, so let me take just a moment to whine about the fact that the first feature film involves a doll that wasn't even introduced until 2000. Is there truly no room in the theatrical marketplace for a movie about my old doll, a Swedish immigrant in a checkered bonnet struggling to learn English and retain memories of the old country? Uh, never mind.

It could be argued that Abigail Breslin looks something like a doll, but otherwise there's little sign of molded plastic origins in Kit Kittredge, about the titular cub reporter. When Kit's father (Chris O'Donnell) loses his job at a car dealership, she catches him sneaking a meal at a local soup kitchen before slinking off to faraway Chicago in search of work. Back at home, Mrs. Kittredge (Julia Ormond, unable to fully slough her English accent) resorts to such undignified activities as selling eggs and taking in a colorful array of boarders, including birdlike librarian Miss Bond (Joan Cusack) and unrepentant flirt Miss Dooley (Jane Krakowski). Although Kit's transition from snobbery to compassion is the real lesson here, there's also a mystery plot that lets the little underachiever take a break from the daily grind of reporting and make some news of her own.

Set in a well-scrubbed Depression-era Cincinnati, Kit Kittredge is surprisingly effective at addressing economic hardship in terms kids can understand. A few of the issues it raises—home foreclosures, absent fathers—are bound to speak to some young viewers personally, but Kit has to contend with humiliation more often than real privation. It's a gentle introduction to a slice of American history that usually comes to kids sugarcoated, or, at the other extreme, tasting as bitter and ineffectual as castor oil.