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.