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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

Ramona and Beezus (review)

How to Be a Nonconformist

Oh, America. Keep your little girls away from Ramona and Beezus. For your little girls might get ideas into their heads. You know, dangerous ideas about using their imaginations. And about not giving in to bullies or the pressure to be predictable and conventional. And about the value and fun of being their own funky, original selves.

This is so not the message that most American entertainment — whether for children or adults — has to offer, either explicitly or implicitly, that I was compelled to be predisappointed. And so, as Ramona opened with nine-year-old Ramona complaining that her teacher “can’t tell kids not to invent words,” I was certain that the entire point of the movie would be for Ramona to learn that her teacher bloody well can tell her that, and that the kid had better get used to it if she has any hope of being the cooperative cog the world expects her to be. Not that that was ever the message of Beverly Cleary’s wonderfully anarchic books, some of which I gobbled up as a nine-year-old myself. But honoring the intent of source material is also not something that Hollywood is overly concerned with.
But this never happened. Ramona remained, resolutely, a celebration of Ramona Quimby, in all her chaotic, imaginative glory. We simply don’t see movies like this about little girls. As in: never. I can’t think of another movie that captures rambunctious, freespirited modern little-girlness the way that this one does, and in a way that isn’t dumbed down or sugared over or rendered as so fantastical that it can be taken only as fantasy — like Pippi Longstocking who has superhuman strength and lives with horses in the house but no grownups. Ramona ain’t no dancing doll, or genteel hostess of teddy bear tea parties, or demanding diva… the latter of which tends to be considered adorable (see every damn stupid movie about a self-centered brat of a little girl wrapping a pro football player/Navy SEAL/secret agent/other generic stereotype of a tough guy around her little finger). This ain’t no pink princess movie. It is smart, kind, genial, energetic, and honest.

Ah, yes: the honesty. There’s something else going on here that makes it so deeply magnificent that I still can’t believe I loved this movie so much that I will revisit it again in the future: There’s nothing unreal about it. Oh, sure, Ramona’s inventive reveries do play out as cartoony daydreams of, say, dangling over a rugged canyon when she’s actually just swinging from the monkey bars on the school playground. But her daydreams take dark turns, too… as when she hears her dad worry about the bank taking the house, and imagines her home actually being lifted up by an enormous crane and crated away on a truck.

Ramona lives in the real world, and it is, alas for her, the tough real world we’re coping with at the moment. Her family is not wealthy, not even upper-middle-class; when her father gets laid off, there are real consequences that impact Ramona (Joey King: Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs, Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hears a Who!) and her sister, Beezus (Selena Gomez: Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hears a Who!, Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over), from the arguments of their parents (John Corbett [Sex and the City 2, Street Kings] and Bridget Moynahan [Lord of War, I, Robot]) they cannot help but overhear to genuine worries that their extremely modest house will be foreclosed upon. In one gently startling scene, the family’s unpretentious, utilitarian car breaks down, and Dad is forced to shuffle through his credit cards in an attempt to find one that won’t be declined in order to pay the tow-truck driver. This isn’t the kind of thing we typically see on film as an everyday worry of ordinary people. Two summers back, Kit Kittredge: An American Girl came close to hitting the same tone of down-to-earth authenticity combined with sprightly hope and enthusiasm for the future… but that film was set during the Great Depression. This movie is set in the here and now. Maybe this is the first movie of Great Depression II.

I don’t mean to imply that Ramona and Beezus is a downer. It certainly isn’t. I did sob tears of sadness at one point, at a moment that reminded me of an unfortunate rite of passage that many children go through. But I also sobbed a lot of tears of joy as well, for director Elizabeth Allen manages to walk a line that more often than not, films just can’t manage, balancing the light and the dark and making it feel as effortless and as natural as breathing. Or as natural as real life. So all the little challenges and triumphs Ramona and her family face feel heartachingly true. Everything about Ramona and Beezus is as charmingly silly as it is surprisingly introspective, down to the budding romance between 15-year-old Beezus and her friend, Henry (Hutch Dano, who isn’t Paul Dano’s little brother, though he looks like he could be), and the rekindling romance between Ramona’s Aunt Bea (Ginnifer Goodwin: A Single Man, In the Land of Women) and the Quimbys’ next-door neighbor, Hobart (Josh Duhamel: When in Rome, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen). It’s all as airy and as full of life as it can be.

That’s true of Ramona herself… as it had to be if the film was to work. Allen knows how to corral the lively energy of her star, Joey King — who is absolutely superb: warm and plausible, not a performing automaton, as so many child actors are. Or else Allen knew to just step back and let King be herself. Whatever the case, King and her Ramona are a delight to spend time with because she — they — are entirely themselves.


MPAA: rated G

viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine
  • Isobel

    Oh I’m so glad – I loved the Ramona books as a child and I was so frightened they were going to ruin this! Have to go see it now!

  • Sarah

    I could see from the trailer that they kept key series plot-points (not that big a deal), but I wasn’t sure if I could deal with it if they excised Ramona’s Ramona-ness, or upscaled the friendly but definitely working-class Klickitat street. So I held my breath, hoped that if Cleary were gonna just cash in on a Brand Name she’d have done it already, and waited for your review. Thanks for making my day!

  • According to this NPR piece, the director is a huge Beverly Cleary fan who worked on the script with the author herself. That, and your review, just reassured me that the movie does justice to Ramona. Thanks.

    *possible spoiler*

    I did sob tears of sadness at one point, at a moment that reminded me of an unfortunate rite of passage that many children go through.

    Oh dear. Picky-picky? That was a sad rite of passage, and one that our daughter has gone through twice. I’ll bring Kleenex.

  • kassia

    I was a big Beverly Cleary fan as a kid, and I was so excited to see the trailer for Ramona and Beezus a year ago. It looks great, I’ll have to go see it some time.

  • Patrick

    Mucho kudos to Beverly Cleary for trying to forge a path in family-oriented cinema that is now clogged full of market researched, sanitized-for-our-protection, mediocre, pandering, wish-fulfillment fantasy crap.

    Now if they can get Judy Blume (“Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing” and “Superfudge”)
    into the multiplex my faith in humanity will be restored.

  • mfan

    Well, I can see that if you liked the books you might forgive a lot about this movie. But smart? Honest? Forgive me but if my unemployed dad found I had put holes in the ceiling, splashed paint on the car, or did any sort of “antics” that caused property damaged that needed to be fixed, I wouldn’t have been met with hugs. And that’s when he had a job. This film has NO reality to it because the money issues aren’t treated realistically. Unless there’s some big nest egg the family has that they refuse to spend down to pay their mortgage and etc.

  • MaryAnn

    Well, I can see that if you liked the books you might forgive a lot about this movie.

    I have only the vaguest memory of the books. I could not tell you if one single incident that’s in the film also appeared in the books.

    Forgive me but if my unemployed dad found I had put holes in the ceiling, splashed paint on the car, or did any sort of “antics” that caused property damaged that needed to be fixed, I wouldn’t have been met with hugs. And that’s when he had a job.

    That’s your dad. Not everyone’s dad would react like that.

    And Ramona is frequently the focus of a lot of anger and frustration from her parents. It’s not that there are no consequences to what she does.

    This film has NO reality to it because the money issues aren’t treated realistically. Unless there’s some big nest egg the family has that they refuse to spend down to pay their mortgage and etc.

    How does that follow? What do you think Ramona’s parents should have done that would make the movie more realistic for you? Locked her in her room forever? Shouted and yelled some more?

    I think there’s a lot of value as well as a lot of realism in dealing with problems without getting so angry that there’s no room to find a solution, and no room for understanding, forgiveness, or tolerance. Ramona is not a malicious child. She doesn’t do the things she does out of spite, or hate, or a desire to piss off anyone.

    So, please, do tell us what your realistic approach to such a child would be.

  • mfan

    Most parents would try behavior modification. But instead of getting advice from people who study behavior modification, they would probably wing it. This would, indeed ususally involve scolding, shouting, spanking, etc.

    Personally, besides safety, I think the number one job of a parent is to instill confidence in their child. Looking at parents who have been successful at that, my approach to Ramona would be to give her chores at minimun wage, until whatever she broke is “paid” for. This might teach her to be more careful, while not hurting her self-confidence.

    Overall, my objection to the film was petty. And I suppose I should come clean that I am ill disposed to the film because of it’s Disney star, who I feel is responsible for fracturing the Disney star fans into factions opposed to each other, instead of being mutually supportive.

  • having raised two nephews, i can’t help but wonder if mfan has ever had any. it’s been my eperience, that people full of child-raising theories have never had one. or have some of the worst behaved ones.

  • Child-raising theories tend to be like battle plans and economic philosophies–they all tend to implode when tested by actual experience. Or to put it another way, no battle plan ever survives contact with the enemy and no child-raising theory ever survives contact with actual children. Unless, of course, they’re flexible enough to allow for such variations.

    That said, I can’t help but wonder how many of the working parents I’ve known would share mfan’s viewpoint more than MaryAnn’s.

    Speaking of which…

    Personally, besides safety, I think the number one job of a parent is to instill confidence in their child. Looking at parents who have been successful at that, my approach to Ramona would be to give her chores at minimun wage, until whatever she broke is “paid” for. This might teach her to be more careful, while not hurting her self-confidence.

    Interesting that mfan seems to give no high priority to survival skills. After all, one would think that one of a parent’s most important jobs is to train the child to able to support himself or herself in the event of a parent’s absence. I’ve seen parents who have raised their children to be totally dependent on them–even in adulthood–and it’s not always a pretty sight.

    And yes, Bronxbee, I have nephews too. One through my sister and several through my cousins. ;-)

  • Matt C

    The thing I remembered about the books, was not only Ramona’s spunkiness and rebellion but because Beezus was going through puberty (as well as sibling rivalry between the two). That’s one thing that irritates me about the movie, Beezus is supposed to be more homely (like in the books) and not as conventionally pretty like Selena Gomez.

    But Joey King is an inspired choice as Ramona. Just superb.

  • having nephews and raising kids are two different birds. i have lots of nieces and nephews, but the two that lived with me are different. we have a different relationship and i had a lot more day to day interaction as their “other parent”. they were totally different from each other, from me and from what i expected. it was very rewarding, but also very hard and i learned there is no one way to raise kids — they’re individuals and they need different limits, punishments and encouragements… and even still you screw up. i just resent when someone who has never raised kids day to day comes up with those “theories”…

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