Sunday, July 25, 2010

Sister Act: RAMONA AND BEEZUS

Ramona and Beezus is based on the much-loved children’s novels of Beverly Cleary that follow the exploits of the fictional families who live on Klickitat Street in Portland, Oregon. Throughout the dozens of books, the main characters were, more often than not, the Quimbys and their friends. Though they are not without their fair share of problems, the Quimbys are rich in happiness; they’re always ready to make lemonade out of lemons.

Cleary’s first book was published in 1950. Through the screenplay adaptation by Laurie Craig and Nick Pustay, who pull plot points from many of the stories, and the direction of Elizabeth Allen, the film takes a 50’s sensibility and filters it through modernity. It achieves an effect that approaches timelessness. Ramona and Beezus is a sweet, wholesome, G-rated experience, but it’s not without some small nuance and genuine emotion. These positive qualities shine through even Allen’s small missteps, like with a handful of obvious music cues. This is a rare live-action family comedy that’s free of cheap innuendo and mean pratfalls.

This is a film that deals honestly with a sisterly relationship. Ramona, age 9, is imaginative and mischievous. She seems to get in trouble merely because she has too many ideas to fit in each day. Joyfully inhabited by newcomer Joey King, Ramona is an irrepressible creative spirit prone to flights of fancy and fits of exaggeration. She accidentally wreaks havoc, from an ill-advised car wash to pulling on a classmate’s fancy, bouncing curls. But she (almost) always has good intentions, and her big sister can see that when she’s not on the receiving end of the damage.

Her big sister is Beatrice, age 15, with a baby-talk nickname, Beezus, bestowed long ago by Ramona. She’s self-conscious, easily annoyed, and unsure of her own confidence. In other words, she’s directly in the middle of her awkward teenage years. She’s desperately trying to strike a balance, yearning to be older while wanting more time as a kid. Disney Channel alum Selena Gomez plays Beatrice with just the right level of complexity the movie requires. She loves her sister, feels protective of her, finds that they can confide in one another, but she is also quick to get upset by Ramona’s antics. This is a film that accurately finds the strain and strength in the relationship between sisters without ever making its observations broad or obvious.

The film also deals touchingly with parent-child relationships. Bridget Moynahan and John Corbett bring a weary love to their roles. These are patient, caring parents who truly, deeply love their children. Even a central economic crisis in the household can’t strain things too badly, though the tension it puts into an otherwise solid relationship is nicely handled. Other scenes that show simple interactions between parents and children feel wonderfully underplayed, touching where they could have gone manic, sweet where they could have gone cloying. Small moments between Corbett and King accrue a subtle power.

This is a movie that’s contagiously happy. It rarely rains on Klickitat Street. The imagery is sunny and the cast is glowing. Even small roles are delightfully filled by the likes of a beaming Ginnifer Goodwin as Aunt Bea, a charming Sandra Oh as a teacher, or a charmingly goofy Josh Duhamel as a neighbor. This is a movie filled with gentle laughs and soft sniffles. It’s refreshing to see a family film so simple and casual in its portrayal of good people with decent relationships. What could easily have felt monotonous and maudlin instead feels truthful.

It may be hard to believe sometimes, but some people have mostly happy childhoods. Some neighborhoods are essentially safe, pleasant environments to raise a family, even to this day. But that doesn’t mean these lives in these places are without incident or without struggle. This is a movie that feels true to these characters, true to real people who are like these characters, and true to the gentle, heart-warming spirit of Cleary’s original stories. It’s the sweetest, most welcome surprise of the summer.

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