Ramona Quimby doesn’t mean to cause trouble. If anything, her intentions are purely honorable. It’s just that … well, she’s nine years old; she has a lot of energy, her imagination is vivid, and her goals are ambitious. The unfortunate side effect is that she makes her life and the lives of those around her chaotic. Her teenage sister, named Beatrice but saddled with the unwanted nickname of Beezus, thinks she’s a pest. Her teacher, so stiffly matter-of-fact, doesn’t like it when she makes up her own words, even if they happen to sound a lot more fun. Her mother, busy at home with an infant daughter, would love it if she would learn to control her enthusiasm. Even her father, so pleasant and involved with his children, would sometimes like to see her grow up just a little bit. The only one who seems to understand Ramona is her aunt Bea. Of course, it’s easy to understand a rambunctious child when you don’t have to live with her every day.
Ramona and Beezus, adapted from the books by Bevery Cleary, is a film that could have easily gone wrong, appealing to younger audiences with endless juvenile slapstick routines. But there’s so much more going on here than the mischievous antics of a third grader. It tells a bright, funny, heartfelt story, and despite its innocent tone and waning nostalgia, it never plays down to its audience. It supplies little Ramona with dialogue just sharp enough to make her seem observant, but not so sharp that she sounds like a nine-year-old psychotherapist. It’s sweet without becoming sappy. It makes the characters likeable but flawed at the same time. Its plot is fun but not so light-hearted that it sidesteps unfortunate realities. The target audience is young girls, but one doesn’t necessarily need to have a daughter or even a family to enjoy it – one only needs to remember what it was like being an imaginative child.
Ramona is played by Joey King with just the right mixture of cuteness, pluck, and clumsiness, a girl so charming and loveable that you can’t help but want to be her best friend. Beezus is played by Selena Gomez not as a typecast of the mean older sister, but as a blossoming teenager with real insecurities. The two have natural onscreen chemistry. They don’t play dumb. They have genuine feelings, a testament to screenwriters Laurie Craig and Nick Pustay, who clearly know a thing or two about human nature. They work just as hard on Ramona’s father (John Corbett), a man who does everything he can to make his daughters feel loved and always puts a positive spin on things, even in bad times. The actual state of his well being is debatable, but the fact that he cares enough to keep smiling for his children is genuinely touching.
The plot involves Ramona’s well-intentioned but misguided efforts to save her house after her father loses his job. She tries selling lemonade. She tries washing the neighbor’s car. Neither yield the desired results (the latter especially). She tries circling various jobs in the classified section and showing them to her father; she even encourages him to be a firefighter. She will soon notice that he’s quite good at drawing cartoons, and of that, I will say no more.
If there is a weakness to Ramona and Beezus, it’s that we find ourselves caring about too many characters, some of whom aren’t given enough screen time. There’s a subplot, for example, involving Aunt Bea (Ginnifer Goodwin), her high school sweetheart Hobart (Josh Duhamel), and their attempts at forming a relationship; I liked them as individuals, and they get along wonderfully with Ramona, but the romance is so condensed that it seems almost trivial. We have the same problem with Beezus’ adolescent crush on her classmate, which is bad because, as a plot point, it nicely plays into the film’s themes of growth, individuality, and connection to family. It can be argued that the story is a little like Ramona Quimby herself – fun and adorable but also a bit unfocused.
I also would have appreciated more moments of Ramona using her imagination. Early scenes, such as when Ramona swings across a playground jungle gym or when she bounces on her bed, feature wonderfully whimsical shots of deep canyons and floating planets; late in the film, as she walks down the street, she imagines a city skyline comprised entirely of landmarks. I refuse to believe her imagination is limited to three shots, especially after hearing her opening monologue, in which she logically and understandably describes the way she views the world.
But in the grand scheme of things, these are minor complaints. Watching “Ramona and Beezus,” I was reminded of 2008’s Kit Kittredge: An American Girl, which stirred within me the same feelings of fun, adventure, and nostalgia while maintaining a sense of reality. It also gave me everything I looked for and missed in this year’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid, namely the sense that childhood, family, and friendship were accurately being depicted. It isn’t often you come across family films that really are for the whole family and not just kids; even though I’m an adult, I left the theater feeling as if I had actually experienced something worthwhile, something that was playful but respectful at the same time.