First off, one doesn't have to own an American Girl, the expensive toy doll from which this so-called chick flick takes its cue, in order to follow along. A series of stylized images sets the scene for you: An upscale neighborhood of Cincinnati, 1934. Picket fences and a series of majestic brick mansions line an idyllic, shady lane. Residents are dressed in their finery, women in floral dresses trimmed with ribbons and delicate little buttons, men in fedoras and vests. Then along comes the counterpoint: a couple of little-boy hobos in tatters and worn-through shoes.

Ten-year-old Kit Kittredge, played by the bright-eyed Abigail Breslin, leads these unfortunate youth to her mother (played by a tearful Julia Ormond), who's in the midst of hosting a garden party. Despite the disapproving glances of her guests, Mrs. Kittredge doesn't hesitate to offer the boys sandwiches and -- if they come back the next day -- paying work. Generosity, open-mindedness: These virtues appear to run in the Kittredge family.

In addition, the remarkable Kit possesses some singular traits: She's a spunky, self-possessed girl capable of outsmarting grownups. In fact, she longs to be a muckraking newspaper journalist -- aw, how quaint -- and even has the verve to march into the office of Mr. Gibson (played by hilarious character actor Wallace Shawn), editor of the Cincinnati Register, to pitch story ideas.

But alas, when Kit's adoring father (hello, handsome Chris O'Donnell) loses his job at an auto dealership, the girl's charmed life comes crashing down. Dad departs for Chicago to look for work, whereas mother and daughter are left no choice but to take in boarders.

Soon, the Kittredges' labyrinthine house is overrun with oddballs: a sexy dance instructor, an uptight mother and her gentle son, Stirling (newcomer Zach Mills), a mobile librarian, a magician, even a pet monkey. As if that weren't enough, those grimy little hobos, Will (Max Thieriot) and Countee (Willow Smith), keep showing up for work.

Of course, these zany characters teach important lessons about the dangers of stereotyping -- but for adult viewers, this aspect of the story comes off as a little too pat.

However, when this G-rated movie confronts the Great Depression's effect on grade-schoolers, its perspective feels childlike not for its simplicity, but for its straightforwardness. There's a heartbreaking thread about a child's desperate longing for an absent father, and it's the bravest, most honest thing in here.

So, as it turns out, "Kit Kittredge" doesn't at all pander to pint-sized doll aficionados. Rather, the movie is smart, empathetic, fun loving and, best of all, a delight for all audiences.