'Ramona and Beezus' Is Family-Friendly Fun
James Rocchi, Special to MSN Movies
I cannot say, precisely, why it is that "Ramona and Beezus" won me over, but it did, and almost entirely. Based on Beverly Cleary's long-loved kid-lit series (which first debuted in 1955) about the titular Quimby sisters, "Ramona and Beezus" is a small-scale story of life and learning, of setbacks large and small and triumphs major and minor. It is neither dark nor dour, but it also does not kid itself about the messy realities of life as part of a family.
Everyone in it is charming and easy to watch, and there is enough grown-up stuff wedged in between kid-friendly antics -- a romantic subplot will make way for a water fight, dad losing his job will be discussed alongside animated flights of fancy -- that parents will be engaged without their kids being bored and, for that matter, vice-versa.
Ramona Quimby (Joey King) lives with her mom (Bridget Moynahan), dad (John Corbett), little sister Roberta (Aila and Zanti McCubbing) and older sister Beezus (Selena Gomez) in Portland. Ramona is always getting things a little wrong -- Beezus' nickname comes from her inability to pronounce 'Beatrice,' for example --but her family, including Aunt Bea (Ginnifer Goodwin), loves her very much due to her irrepressible spirit.
"If you can't be brave at recess,' Ramona muses as her trip along the climbing rings morphs via computer effects into a perilous traverse across a canyon, "how can you do it when it really counts?" And, yes, I know -- reading this, you may feel the emotional equivalent of diabetes kicking in, as your system is overwhelmed by what seems like the syrupy sweetness of that encapsulation.
But then dad loses his job, and things get a little tense around the Quimby household -- more so than usual, like when Beezus and Ramona quibble and quarrel and Beezus hides her report card in the freezer. But there's also comfort to be had in the Quimby family as they come together, and distractions like Aunt Bea's long-over romance with her boy-next door high school flame Hobart (Josh Duhamel).
It's easy to praise the grown-up actors here -- Duhamel, once you remove him from the presence of talking robots, is a talented light comedic actor, while Goodwin plays a perfect hipster aunt -- but Corbett makes every moment he has on-screen work. While his talking to Ramona about economic reality is hardly Atticus Finch explaining evil, good and what a chiffarobe is to Scout on the front porch, Corbett's scenes with King have a real warmth to them, and he brings the understated elemental good heart of Laurie Craig and Nick Pustay's screenplay adaptation to life.
And King and Gomez are excellent as well. King's Ramona is willful and plucky, and you are either rooting for her or wincing at her, and when tough stuff happens, King plays it for real. Gomez is good at conveying an average teen -- loving her little sister as much as she loves bugging her, frustrated by fate and boys. ("Who could ever love a girl named 'Beezus?'" she asks, pining for Henry Huggins (Hutch Dano), and she makes the line surprisingly effective.)
If you were a younger sibling -- I was -- then you will during "Ramona and Beezus" recall the hand-me-down clothes and custom-made mockery your siblings gave you. If you were an older sibling, you will recall the way that your younger siblings could be the greatest joy, and greatest annoyance, of your life at the time. And if you are a kid, you will laugh as Ramona falls into a giant peanut-butter sandwich when she auditions to be the new Royal Peanut Butter Princess in the hopes of solving her family's money woes and yet still appreciate her and Beezus' constant mix of loathing and love.
Director Elizabeth Allen previously made "Aquamarine," another tale of girl bonding and faith and friendship, and she's hired some interesting people. John Bailey ("The Big Chill," both "Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants" films) does clear, clean work as her cinematographer, and Devo's Mark Mothersbaugh ("Rushmore," "Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs") provides light, bright music as the film's composer, while Sandra Oh gets in a few dry, coolly funny lines as Ramona's teacher Mrs. Meacham. Ramona's fantasies look like the stylized miniatures of tilt-shift photography; her ordinarily life looks messy and real and true. "Ramona and Beezus" is real family entertainment -- sincere, direct, timeless and warm -- and while its calamities and celebrations may be lost in the loud boom and bang of summertime action films around it, it's still a real and sincere pleasure of family filmmaking made not to sell toys or cross-promote a TV show but, rather, to remind us of what really matters.
James Rocchi's writings on film have appeared at Cinematical.com, Netflix.com, SFGate.com and in Mother Jones magazine. He lives in Los Angeles, where every ending is a twist ending.