Based on the famed children's novels by Beverly Cleary, "Ramona and Beezus" would seem to be tailor-made for the Disney Channel. The only catch? It is being distributed by 20th Century Fox and opening wide in theaters. Even if the storya bittersweet coming-not-quite-of-age comedy about the trials and travails of a precocious nine-year-old girl and her teenage sisteris fairly basic, the film earns its stripes as a legitimate feature film by way of classy direction by Elizabeth Allen (2006's "Aquamarine
"), an unexpectedly wise screenplay by Laurie Craig (2004's "Ella Enchanted
") and Nick Pustay, and a terrific cast who treat their roles with a seriousness not always found in movies targeting tweeners. Indeed, "Ramona and Beezus" is more than just that, though, an inviting and satisfying entertainment that should please viewers of any age.
Portland-based youngster Ramona Quimby (Joey King) is always getting into mischief. Her overactive imagination should be looked at as a blessing, but with few of the grown-ups around her accepting of her ploys to be different, she's begun to wonder if it might instead be a curse. For teen sister Beatrice (Selena Gomez), she hates her nicknameBeezusand is currently suffering through a crush on longtime friend and classmate Henry Huggins (Hutch Dano) that she is too afraid to do anything about. In a year sparked by change and transition, both girls are faced with some important life lessons: that the safety of one's profession is not always set in stone; that marriages often go through rough patches; that the people they love are not always going to be around for them; and that death is an inevitable fact of living. Through it all, Ramona and Beezus grow up a little and come to the conclusion that embracing one's own diversity and true self is far better than conforming to what others want or expect you to be.
"Ramona and Beezus" avoids reaching for the lowest-common-denominator and is not only better for it, but should ensure that it endures for decades to come as a family film of unusually high quality. There are no bathroom jokes or bodily function gags. There are no talking animals. The precious few physical pratfalls are those that come organically out of situations and actually work within their context. The bulk of the picture, then, relies on smarter humor of human behavior and observation and the natural drama that comes with the realization as a child that not everything in life is fair. There are disappointments and heartbreak, and not everything always makes sense. At the same time, there is a joy and innocence in being nine years oldone that director Elizabeth Allen captures with a warm, feeling hand. She successfully burrows into the mindframe of Ramona, one that kids will relate to and adults will nostalgically remember from their own past experiences.
Who hasn't taken a disastrous school photo? Who hasn't shared a special bond with a family member or relative who seemed to understand you better than anyone else did? Who hasn't tried to hide a report card, or run away for an afternoon before returning home? Who didn't play make-believe in their backyard or on the playground, and sometimes get into fixes? Who hasn't heard their parents arguing, and wished they would stop? Who hasn't had a pet, and watched as he or she slowed down and grew older? "Ramona and Beezus" touches upon all of these things and, with the exception of a certain rosy idealism found in the early family scenes that rings slightly false, keeps firmly rooted in reality. Well, almost. Now and again, Ramona's mindful flights of fancy are visualized with colorfully exaggerated effects that find her, for example, hanging from a bridge over a perilous cliffreally, she's just playing on the monkey barsor walking cross-country past famous landmarksin actuality, she's simply made her way down the street.
In a breakthrough lead performance along the lines of Anna Chlumsky's in 1991's "My Girl," Joey King (2008's "Quarantine
") is a remarkable find as the headstrong, creatively-inclined Ramona Quimby. King brings a confidence to her turn that has nothing to do with unctuous over-acting and everything to do with a natural gift that cannot be faked. She's spunky, she's cute, she's offbeat, and she can handle emotional moments just as well as the comedic ones. In other words, King becomes Ramona. As Beezus, Selena Gomez (TV's "Wizards of Waverly Place") is very good in her own right, the alternately loving and sparring sisterly bond between herself and Ramona coming through loud and clear.
As loving parents Robert and Dorothy, who find themselves struggling financially when Robert is laid off from his job, John Corbett (2010's "Sex and the City 2
") and Bridget Moynahan (2005's "Lord of War
") are just right in their portrayals of a caring mother and father who nonetheless aren't above sometimes losing their patience or letting disappointing turns-of-events get the best of them. Looking like a dead-ringer for King and Gomezperfect castingGinnifer Goodwin (2009's "He's Just Not That Into You
") is a genial delight as Aunt Bea, who shares a special relationship with Ramona and must face the hang-ups of her past when high school ex-boyfriend Hobart (Josh Duhamel) comes back into her life. A scene where Bea and Hobart bond over her mix tape that he still has"Eternal Flame" by The Bangles is, of course, one of the tracksis very sweet. As Beezus' object of affection, Hutch Dano (TV's "Zeke and Luther") has a captivating look and a soft, endearing demeanor, while Sandra Oh (2008's "Blindness
") is stern yet empathetic as Ramona's teacher Mrs. Meancham.
"Ramona and Beezus" doesn't exactly cover any new ground, but it doesn't need to; tales of this sort are universal, and as long as there are children in the world approaching adolescence and adults who still remember what that time in their life was like, there will be a place for movies like this one. They may not be flashy, or become box-office blockbusters, but they stick around through the years and grow a following because of their innate gentleness and relatability. As the film rounds the corner toward its lovely conclusion, the viewer may be shocked to discover how emotionally invested they are in these people, and how even a simple, character-revealing exchange between Ramona and Mrs. Meacham is enough to get the tear ducts working (if they haven't already started long ago). "Ramona and Beezus" is appealing, funny, honest, and all that jazz, but who could have expected it to be this touching?