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'Middle School' daze

October 7, 2016
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Tween comedy inoffensive entertainment

There's a lot of media out there aimed at young people. Books, movies, TV shows all created expressly to engage with the kiddie demographic. As far as quality is concerned, wellit's a mixed bag.

Noted literary cashgrabber James Patterson got in on the act a few years back; among his many projects was teaming up with co-author Chris Tebbetts on a book called 'Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life' that turned out to be a massive success, resulting in a sequel and of course a movie.

'Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life' is that movie. Directed by Steve Carr, whose kiddie-flick bona fides include films like 'Daddy Daycare,' 'Rebound' and the second 'Dr. Doolittle,' helms this story of a boy whose transfer into a new school leaves him at a loss, battling bullies both kid and adult.

Rafe Khatchadorian (Griffin Gluck, TV's 'Red Band Society') is a talented and imaginative, but troubled kid living with his sous chef mom Jules (Lauren Graham, 'Max') and little sister Georgia (Alexa Nisenson in her feature debut). He's been kicked out of a couple of schools; his latest Hills Village Middle School is the last one in town that will accept him, so he's got to deal with starting in the middle of the semester. He's also dealing with Carl (Rob Riggle, 'Opening Night'), his mom's jerk of a boyfriend who is less than nice to either of the kids.

When he arrives for his first day, he's happy to see that his best buddy Leo (Thomas Barbusca, TV's 'Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp') a fellow traveler in the bucking authority game is also at HVMS. But it isn't long before he is confronted by Principal Dwight (Andy Daly, TV's 'Review'), a standardized test-obsessed taskmaster with a thick rulebook devoted to stamping out any creativity or independent thought among the students.

Rafe tries to get along, but when one of his less-than-flattering drawings gets outed during an assembly - the same assembly where he first sees and immediately falls for AV Club do-gooder Jeanne (Isabela Moner, TV's '100 Things to Do Before High School) Dwight confiscates and destroys Rafe's notebook.

At Leo's urging, Rafe decides to strike back a book for a book. The two boys decide to take down every single rule in the principal's book. Soon, Rafe's efforts start to undermine Principal Dwight's desire to retain his top-dog status on the B.L.A.A.R. standardized test. But it's not all fun and games; when the time comes to decide between doing what's easy and what's right, will Rafe choose wisely?

There's a general feeling of disposability about this movie that one assumes springs from an equally disposable book. At times, it skates right up to the edge of being condescending; it's hard not to see the cash-in cynicism of the man behind the source material hovering around the edges.

(Seriously, Patterson even puts himself in the movie with a cameo that could generously be described as excruciating to watch.)

But disposable doesn't necessarily equal bad. And this movie, while no great shakes, could have been much worse. It's standard-issue goofy kid wish-fulfillment, ultimately harmless stuff that lands a couple of good jokes and sight gags. It's over the top and utterly unrealistic in ways too numerous to count, but so what? Could a young audience handle a bit more sophistication? Absolutely. But sometimes sophomoric is OK too.

The likability of the kiddie cast certainly helps. Gluck manages to avoid most of the pitfalls inherent to young actors working with material like this. Barbusca is the embodiment of the plucky sidekick/comic relief that literally every movie like this one needs. Moner has some sweetly idealistic moments, while young Nisenson proves to be a scene-stealer (non-mugging variety).

It's a surprisingly adept adult cast as well. Graham can play harried-but-loving in her sleep, but doesn't seem to have phoned it in, while Riggle clearly relishes his cartoonish crudity. And Andy Daly is actually kind of great; he's utterly committed to his uptight and absurd tyranny. He's an ideal villain for a story such as this. And with other notables like Retta, Adam Pally and Efren Ramirez, it's a far better comedic cast than you might expect.

'Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life' is fluffy nonsense interspersed with moments of unsubtle emotion and occasional condescension. It is also probably going to prove reasonably engaging to the tween demographic it's shooting for. It's far from great, but for an obvious cash-in, it could have been much worse.

[2.5 out of 5]

Last modified on Tuesday, 31 January 2017 19:35

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