The shadow of America’s recession hangs heavily over Ramona and Beezus. Wow, that’s a portentous opening sentence. It’s true, though — the very first film adaptation of Beverly Cleary’s beloved kids’ books shows the Quimbys facing some pretty serious economic hardship. The movie is downright gloomy at times, which is one of the things that make this pleasantly scattered kids’ film more interesting than many others of its type.

RamonaThe film’s loose structure comes from writers Laurie Craig and Nick Pustay taking events from different books in the series, then adding some things of their own. Ramona (Joey King) is nine and a half years old as we begin, and her accident-prone ways make her a continual pest to her older sister Beezus (pop singer and Grand Prairie native Selena Gomez), who gets her nickname from baby Ramona’s inability to pronounce “Beatrice.” The sisters have to pull together, though, when their dad (John Corbett) loses his job just after the family has taken out a loan to enlarge the house on Klickitat Street. Never lacking for initiative, Ramona takes it upon herself to raise money for her parents, but everything she tries ends in some sort of small-scale disaster.

Director Elizabeth Allen is a relative newcomer who previously helmed the tone-deaf 2006 fantasy film Aquamarine. While she doesn’t look like ever being a major filmmaker, this movie shows noticeable improvement. True, the pacing is herky-jerky, the movie insists a bit too heavily on its girl-empowering message in spots, and some of Allen’s gambits fall flat, like the embarrassingly amateurish fantasy sequences that try to show Ramona’s imagination at work. (It looks like budget constraints played a role here.) Still, the writing is reasonably sharp, and given how much ground this script covers, the movie succeeds at more of what it tries to do than you might expect.

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The actors help matters enormously, and the director seems to have given them license to loosen up and have fun. King, who would have been 10 years old at the time this was filmed, doesn’t always hit the proper notes but does have a sparkly screen presence that serves the character. She plays well off a marvelously light Corbett, whose Mr. Quimby is a frustrated artist who gets to work out his creative urges when he’s with his daughters. The romantic subplot between Ramona’s Aunt Bea (Ginnifer Goodwin) and Howie Kemp’s Uncle Hobart (Josh Duhamel) features some easy rapport between those two actors as well. Funny that this movie gives them better material to work with than the romantic films they’ve starred in for grown-up audiences. They rise to the occasion.

Maybe some of the issues here are resolved too easily, and maybe such an iconic series in kids’ literature deserved a better screen treatment. Even so, this movie’s intelligence and a willingness to tackle complex subjects makes its overall sunniness well earned. It’s a good starting point, and I wouldn’t mind seeing Ramona have some further adventures in a sequel. l