TORONTO - Inside a converted warehouse in a desolate area just east of downtown, Abigail Breslin sits patiently with her mother, waiting for the film cameras to set their positions for the next take. The young actress, like the rest of the cast, sticks out here because of her Depression-era costumes. In fact, with her chin-length hair and a 1930s-style blue dress, white socks and shoes, she is so carefully put together that she almost resembles an antique figurine.
Breslin is playing the title character in Kit Kittredge: An American Girl, the family-friendly movie opening today that is based on the hugely popular line of dolls and books from American Girl. Kit, growing up during hard economic times, dreams of writing for a newspaper. For Breslin, it's a dream role. The 12-year-old has been a big fan of the American Girl book-and-doll culture, in which each doll is a fictional 10-year-old set in a historically significant period of time, and each stars in her own books that tell the story of growing up in that era.
Breslin has even been a few times to the flagship stores in Chicago and New York and has taken her dolls up to the cafe for tea - so this job had her bragging to friends.
"I was really excited. I really liked Kit. And my friends were so excited. They're all, 'Oh, my gosh! You are going to be in the Kit movie? I can't believe it!'"
In the world of preteen-girl culture, American Girl is about as far away as one can get from Nickelodeon, Britney or even Miley. And Breslin is about to become the poster child for this newfound earnestness.
"We had our sights set on Abby from the get-go," said Ellen Brothers, president of American Girl, which is owned by Mattel. "She is our quintessential American Girl."
With such a rich narrative and a rabid fan base to draw from, American Girl has long been coveted as a potential gold mine for moviemakers. Producer Elaine Goldsmith-Thomas first came across the doll franchise in the 1990s through her niece and was impressed by how it tackled historical issues. She chatted about the phenomenon with Julia Roberts - who eventually signed on as an executive producer - and both agreed: It was a project that was ripe for the picking. It took a year of chasing down the American Girl management, but in 2001 Goldsmith-Thomas flew to the company's headquarters in Wisconsin to convince them that they were the right people for translating the stories to film. Picturehouse signed onto the project, and studio President Bob Berney soon found out that it would be pretty easy to cast the adult roles.
"All the adults who were sent the script and who had a daughter or knew a young girl definitely read it," he said.
Chris O'Donnell, who plays Kit's father, pointed to his own daughter as inspiration for the part. "I've got a 7-year-old daughter, and I was already quite familiar with it," he said of the dolls and books. "I felt my daughter has been left out of the movies I've done. I did Batman for my boys, but there hasn't been one for my girl. She'll be so jazzed."
Director Patricia Rozema, a mother of two daughters, was especially impressed by how the script dealt with serious issues such as poverty. The Depression looms heavily in the film as O'Donnell's character struggles to keep things afloat for his family in Cincinnati and is forced to find work in Chicago while Kit and her mom take on boarders at their home to help pay the bills.
The cast also includes Julia Ormond, who plays Kit's mother, and Jane Krakowski, a local dance instructor on the lookout for the right man. Joan Cusack plays one of the boarders in the Kittredge house.
"But the leads are still the children," said Krakowski. "We adults are more in the background."
And leading the charge is Breslin, the superfan herself.
"She was our only choice," said Goldsmith-Thomas. "She's got this honesty to her performance. She's not picture-perfect. She is so real. She really embodies Kit."
Jason Chow writes for the Los Angeles Times.