“No matter what my sister says, I’m not a pest,” insists 9-and-three-quarters-year-old Ramona Quimby (newcomer Joey King) at the beginning of “Ramona and Beezus,” a sweet and sure-handed adaptation of the Beverly Cleary children’s book series.
Big sister Beezus (Disney Channel star Selena Gomez) would likely take issue with Ramona’s assessment, ticking off a laundry list of ways that Ramona can be a bother. Sticking her with the nickname Beezus — Ramona couldn’t pronounce “Beatrice” when she was smaller — undoubtedly would top the grievance list. Bunking together in a small bedroom doesn’t help matters much, either.
But as the episodic “Ramona and Beezus” gradually unfolds, we watch the sisters forge not only a truce but also an understanding of each other as young women negotiating their way through the thickets of childhood. Tenderness isn’t a quality found much these days in the whirring-and-clanging busyness of family movies, which makes this G-rated gem’s emphasis on emotion and heart all the more laudable.
Author Cleary began the “Ramona” books in 1955, taking the character from a 4-year-old precocious tot through age 10 by the end of the eighth and final entry in the series. Ramona came off as courageous and independent, but sometimes the bravado was just an act. Underneath, she felt misunderstood and wanted the acceptance of her peers as much as the next kid.
The remarkably natural King captures the character’s pluckiness and insecurities as she feuds with her seemingly perfect sister and endures one catastrophe after another at her grade school. (Picture day produces a particularly tragicomic disaster.) Home, usually a source of sanctuary for Ramona, is unsettled too now that her kind father, Robert ( John Corbett), has been laid off from work.
Robert’s joblessness — and his debate about following money or his muse — is one of a few grown-up plotlines threaded through the film. Ramona’s beloved Aunt Bea ( Ginnifer Goodwin) provides counseling to her favorite niece but finds her own wisdom wanting when it comes to knowing whether she should rekindle a romance with an old flame ( Josh Duhamel).
The seriousness of these issues never threatens to dampen the movie’s sunny tone. With their optimism and can-do spirit, the Quimbys own a passing resemblance to the Flanders family on “The Simpsons” but mostly in a good way. The parents are perfect, but they’re not bumbling or bickering (much), either.
Director Elizabeth Allen (“Aquamarine”) coaxes fine performances from her cast young and old, stumbling only when relying too heavily on musical cues (Katrina & the Waves’ “Walking on Sunshine” needs to be permanently retired) and in the film’s awkward CGI flights of imaginative fancy. Other than that, the movie is, to quote its young heroine, “terrifical.”