Ramona Quimby (Joey King) is an effervescent nine year old with a quirky outlook on life fuelled by her overactive imagination and unintentional knack for causing mischief and mayhem. Her long-suffering big sister Beezus (Selena Gomez), so nicknamed on account of Ramona’s mispronunciation of “Beatrice”, copes as best she can looking after her junior siblings, including baby Roberta, when dad Robert (John Corbett) loses his job and mom Dorothy (Bridget Moynahan) has to work twice as long. Terrified at the thought that money troubles will split her parents apart and cost them their home, Ramona hatches an array of hair-brained schemes to get rich quick. Further problems arise when Ramona’s beloved Aunt Bea (Ginnifer Goodwin) is newly smitten with her old boyfriend Howie (Josh Duhamel), who seems intent on starting a new life elsewhere.
Ramona and Beezus offers that rarity in modern cinema: a warm portrait of a loving and defiantly non-dysfunctional family. While undoubtedly episodic and paced perhaps a tad too leisurely for some, the film delivers an hour and forty minutes in the company of decent, likeable people enduring everyday problems with grace and good humour. Between them, filmmaker Elizabeth Allen, whose last work was the fish-out-of-water mermaid comedy Aquamarine (2006), screenwriters Laurie Craig and Nick Pustay, and producer Denise Di Novi (a former Tim Burton collaborator), fashion an easygoing fable that touches on issues like hardship, loss, grownups’ regret over past mistakes and children’s anxieties over finding their place in a seemingly uncertain world. All without recourse to contrived melodrama. As always, sincerity is the key ingredient when family films seek to transcend potential sentimentality. Luckily, the filmmakers tapped a source material packed with sincerity by the bucket load.
Children’s author Beverly Cleary penned Beezus and Ramona in 1955, although the Quimby sisters appeared in her earlier novels about Henry Huggins, who appears as Beezus’ love interest in this movie played by the affable Hutch Dano. Generations of young readers throughout the United States embraced the Ramona books - encompassing Ramona the Pest (1968), Ramona the Brave (1970), Ramona and Her Father (1977), Ramona and Her Mother (1979), Ramona, Age 8 (1981), Ramona Forever (1984), The Ramona Quimby Diary (1984) and Ramona’s World (1999) - as children’s classics and while they remain less well known internationally, some may recall the 1980s television series wherein the young Sarah Polley played Ramona. The film shows similar skill in adapting Cleary’s unfussy, observational style which does not seek to sentimentalise family life, but rather adopts a child’s eye view to draw astute insights into human behaviour, be that adolescent or grownup.
Working midst the warm honeyed tones woven by cinematographer John Bailey, Allen counterbalances the slice of life drama with Ramona’s wild flights of fancy. Scenes such as Ramona’s impromptu leap into outer space or her parachute jump over Portland are artfully rendered with charming storybook styled, stop-motion like special effects that show how a child’s imagination can turn the most mundane activity into something extraordinary.
Although Allen over-eggs a handful of scenes with needless pop tunes, the uniformly endearing supporting cast imbue various comical episodes with zest and pathos. From the cathartic water fight that erupts between the Quimby and Kemp families, to Ramona’s simultaneously heartrending and humorous audition for a television commercial dressed as a princess with a flimsy tiara made of flowers and brambles. Most memorable is the moment the downtrodden Ramona wows classmates by unveiling “the longest picture in the world”, painted by her beloved dad. A gesture that proves more significant than she realises. In such scenes Allen turns an intimate, small scale story into something epic, which if you think about it is exactly how an over-imaginative nine year old would perceive the world.
Cleary’s Ramona Quimby is among the most endearing heroines in children’s literature and newcomer Joey King ably embodies her many dynamic qualities with a star-making, multifaceted performance. Instead of the obnoxious child prankster seen in films like Problem Child (1989) or Home Alone (1990), Ramona is much closer to a silent screen clown and more often than not the butt of some calamitous, socially embarrassing mishap. Yet no matter how many times she gets knocked down, she keeps bouncing back. She is the kind of quirky nonconformist who has trouble fitting in but in whom, as stern seeming schoolteacher Mrs. Meacham (Grey’s Anatomy star Sandra Oh) cannily perceives, resides a spark of brilliance that sets her apart from the crowd. The kind of mind that comes around once in a lifetime.