Sisters anyone could relate to
By Dan Kois
Friday, July 23, 2010
Those among you who feel protective of your favorite childhood books may be a little nervous about the new film adaptation of Beverly Cleary's beloved tale of sisterhood, "Beezus and Ramona." Specifically, you might be nervous because the title of Elizabeth Allen's film, which features Selena Gomez, is "Ramona and Beezus." Is it not enough that the simple treasures of our childhood must be made into callow, commercial movies starring Disney Channel icons? Must they bastardize their titles, too?
Anyway, relax. Ramona's name comes first because this thoughtful movie is not an adaptation of that quaint novel, which after all was published in 1955 and featured an awful lot of scenes of Mother baking cakes and crying, "Oh, my goodness!" "Ramona and Beezus" knits together scenes and themes from all eight of Cleary's Ramona Quimby novels into a sweet and funny, if slightly overlong, portrait of life on a modern-day Klickitat Street.
Ramona (the cute, but not-too-cloying, Joey King) is 9 and has a real knack for getting into trouble. She's not trying to; it's just that she's brave and imaginative and sometimes things get a little out of hand and the next thing you know, she's cracked a raw egg on her head on Picture Day. Her sister, Beezus (Gomez, sharing the spotlight well), is in high school, and is therefore exasperated by Ramona's antics, especially when the pest starts a kitchen fire just as a boy calls on the telephone.
"Ramona and Beezus," of course, is about how sisters love each other despite all the upsetting things that happen to them. And plenty of upsetting things happen to Ramona and Beezus. Their dad (John Corbett) loses his job; a handsome ne'er-do-well (Josh Duhamel) starts courting their lovable Aunt Bea (Ginnifer Goodwin); they even, in a plot twist that some parents of hysterical children might decree overkill, bury a beloved pet.
But if the movie piles an awful lot of misfortune on Ramona's head, it also never talks down to her -- or to the kids Ramona's age who, despite the studio's attempts to appeal to tweens, are likely to make up "Beezus and Ramona's" chief audience. The screenplay, by Laurie Craig and Nick Pustay, understands how frustrating life can be for a 9-year-old who doesn't know why everything she says makes the adults crack up. "We're not laughing at you, honey," Ramona's dad says at dinner, while everyone laughs at her for expressing her anger with a "very bad word" ("Guts!").
Allen's direction is bright and imaginative; particularly enjoyable are the movie's occasional flights of fancy, as when Ramona's leaps off a low ledge are transformed into well-animated parachute jumps through the clouds. Allen benefits from an extremely game cast, from her two pint-size leads to the adults, all of whom are both unashamed to look silly and unafraid to deliver legitimately emotional moments. Particularly appealing are Goodwin and Duhamel, whose easy rapport creates an unexpectedly satisfying grown-up romance in the midst of all the little-kid shenanigans.
So, little girls and their parents will certainly like "Ramona and Beezus." (Though they all might squirm a little at its 1 hour 44 minute running time.) High-school girls will like it, too, if they can get past the little-girl trappings. Boys? It's an accepted truth in Hollywood these days that boys won't watch a movie with girls in it, but I and every boy I knew read the Ramona Quimby books when we were kids. I can't think of a good reason why any 9-year-old boy wouldn't relate to Ramona and her problems -- which, after all, have very little to do with being a girl, and quite a lot to do with being very little.