Kernel Rating (out of 5):
MPAA Rating: PG Length: 92 minutes
Age Appropriate For: 10+. This film based on the popular children’s book series is about an artistic middle school student who chafes under the many rules of his new school and who decides to wage a war against his new principal. Recurring animation sequences that include characters drawn as zombies; some bullying; some rule-breaking involved with pulling off the pranks; a crush between two teenagers; some kissing; some rude jokes and bathroom humor; and the mention of a character who passed away.
‘Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life’ attempts to channel the subversive cool of ‘Ferris Bueller’s Day Off’ in its story about a teenage boy bucking against the rules of his middle school. There are some good character relationships and amusing jokes here, but the film tries a bit too hard.
By Roxana Hadadi
Like a cross between “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” and “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” “Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life” tells the story of a creative, misunderstood kid who chafes under the stringent rules of his authoritarian principal. After deciding to fight back in the form of pranks, he learns that he didn’t know the adults around him—or himself—as well as he thought he did.
That’s a pretty generalized synopsis of “Middle School,” but the film would have done better if it had streamlined in such a way—it’s the movie’s numerous subplots and overstuffed narrative that are its undoing. At only 92 minutes, the film careens between plot points, and its tonal inconsistencies make for long stretches of time where you won’t laugh at all—not ideal for a movie presenting itself as a tween comedy.
Based on the first in a series of young-adult books by James Patterson, the film focuses on Rafe Khatchadorian (Griffin Gluck), a middle schooler who has bounced around various schools and is in danger of going to a military academy if he doesn’t shape up. When he lands at Hills Village Middle School, the place seems beautiful—clean, pristine, seemingly untouched by the hands of any young prankster—and he’s immediately turned off by the antics of Principal Dwight (Andy Daly, of “Big Miracle”) and his enforcer Ida Stricker (Retta), who prioritize standardized testing and rules instead of student creativity.
Maybe Rafe could have stuck it out, but things take an awful turn when Rafe’s sketchbook—where he draws his experiences and understandings of things, and from which animated sequences are pulled for the movie—is involved in a school assembly, disrupting Principal Dwight’s ruminations on their testing schedule. And when Rafe’s sketchbook is destroyed in retaliation, he vows to get revenge against the principal, teaming up with friend Leo (Thomas Barbusca) and crush Jeannie Galleta (Isabela Moner) to do so.
What follows is an increasing war between the two sides, with Rafe and Co. dreaming up elaborate pranks involving an office wallpapered with sticky notes, paint in the school’s water system, and manure on Principal Dwight. But will Rafe go too far and end up sent to a military academy to finish out middle school—the worst years of his life?
Although “Middle School” leans a bit too hard on current pop-culture references to reach its target audience—like when hipster teacher Mr. Teller (Adam Pally, of “Iron Man 3”), sympathetic to Rafe’s challenges, compares the process of collaboration to a mixtape between the rappers Drake and Future—it does well with its casting choices. Gluck doesn’t have the easy, boundless charm that Matthew Broderick did in this film’s spiritual predecessor “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” but he has sweet, obviously affectionate relationships with his mother Jules (Lauren Graham, of “Max”) and his younger sister Georgia (Alexa Nisenson). They work well together as a family unit, and the film’s messages about family loyalty and love are good ones.
It’s frustrating, then, that the film saddles another subplot to the family angle, with Rafe also butting heads with Jules’s boyfriend, Carl (Rob Riggle, of “My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2”), a verbally abusive jerk who has zero interest in either Rafe or Georgia. Rafe’s rants about Carl, whom he nicknames Bear, in his sketchbook are another point of conflict, but the film didn’t need it. There was enough going on with the school-uprising narrative without inserting Riggle’s amusing-but-ultimately-irritating bullying into the home scenes, too.
That kind of unevenness is what makes “Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life” enjoyable but not immediately memorable. The animation sequences are effectively done and the casting is on point, but the overstuffed storylines weigh on the film’s pacing and humor. “Middle School” will speak to kids in those “worst years,” but a more streamlined film could have provided a better conversation.
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