Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life (2016)
Rules aren’t for everyone
Yep. It’s true, early adolescence sucks. It’s that ‘nothing’ period in life where you’re either too young to enjoy teenage independence or too old to continue gazing at the world through wide-eyed wonderment. Obviously trying to cash in on the moderately successful Diary of a Wimpy Kid film series — which has its fourth installment set for a 2017 release — Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life whisks us back to that weird ‘in-between’ era, where grown-ups were still perceived as frightening and hallway reputation reigned supreme.
Based on a series of popular pre-teen books written by Chris Tebbetts and crime thriller novelist James Patterson, Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life tells the story of one Rafe Khatchadorian (Griffin Gluck), a sixth grade kid with a nifty knack for drawing and a slight problem with authority. After being kicked out of multiple schools (for bad behavior), Rafe starts afresh at Hills Village Middle School, his hard-working single mother Jules (Lauren Graham) hoping it proves to be a good fit for her rule-breaking but well-meaning son. Upon arrival, Rafe meets pompous uptight Principal Ken Dwight (Andy Daly), who runs the institution with an iron fist, forcing kids to comply with a bunch of pointless rules he’s cooked up (which he refers to as the Code of Conduct) whilst insisting students ace a standardized test known as the B.L.A.A.R. (Baseline Assessment of Academic Readiness) in order to preserve his school’s untarnished No. 1 ranking in the district.
Alas, Rafe’s first day goes from average to terrible after Principal Dwight confiscates his pride and joy, Rafe’s beloved sketchbook (containing every single picture and doodle that he had ever drawn), finding it in violation of one of the school’s useless regulations and destroying it to set an example. Now, in order to even out the score with the rule-obsessed Dwight, Rafe and his best friend Leo (Thomas Barbusca) set out to break every law in the Code of Conduct with a revenge plot dubbed Operation R.A.F.E. (short for Rules Aren’t For Everyone), the pair uncovering a hidden rebellion of students ready to stand up and revolt. Dwight, however, isn’t willing to go down without a fight, the headmaster hell bent on preserving the school’s regimented reputation.
Directed by Steve Carr, Paul Blart: Mall Cop (2009), and written by Chris Bowman and Hubbel Palmer, Masterminds (2016), along with Kara Holden, Meant to Be (2010), Middle School knows its audience and caters to a very specific demographic. As one would expect, most of the ‘fun’ stems from seeing Rafe and his ‘partner in crime’ execute several elaborate pranks — none of which are malicious or mean-spirited. These hijinks range from lame — putting bright pink gloop inside the principal’s hat for instance — to unfeasible — plastering hallways and Dwight’s office with fluorescent Post-It notes — to downright impossible — turning the school’s trophy case into an aquarium, complete with exotic fish, an eel and a lobster. While extremely silly and utterly far-fetched, most early teens should (at least) get a kick or two out of seeing the juvenile folly erupting on-screen.
Narratively, Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life can be likened to getting too much homework over a three-day-weekend, the movie chock-full of superfluous side-plots. The flick is arguably at its best when it’s focusing on Rafe’s life at home, where he’s juggling the burdens of living with his mom’s smarmy fiancé, the kid-hating Carl aka ‘Bear’ (a solid Rob Riggle) and his brainy, know-it-all younger sister, Georgia (Alexa Nisenson), our protagonist venting all of his frustrations by drawing various cartoon characters, humanoid animals and monsters in his nifty sketchbook, many of which come to life via punky animated cut scenes. The film, however, tries to get ‘all sentimental’ with a left-field reveal (which did nothing for me) that arrives too late in the game, the flick basically ignoring realism up until it needs to add a semblance of gravity to proceedings.
When it comes to performances, some don’t make the grade, while others get a solid A for effort. Griffin Gluck is quite likable as Rafe Khatchadorian, an introverted kid with an epic imagination and a preposterous last name, the Silicon Valley (2014) star resembling a modern-day Ferris Bueller of sorts — though I guess he’s more of a repressed artist rather than a cheeky trouble-maker. Television actor Thomas Barbusca is totally unlikable (in a pesky kid kinda way), as Leo, Rafe’s long-time pal who constantly convinces his friend to break the rules, Barbusca’s snot-nosed act annoying the bejeebers out of me. The frisky Isabela Moner, on the other hand, is quite affable as Rafe’s love interest, the smart, studious Jeanne — I’m sure she’ll kick ass in Transformers: The Last Knight later this year.
The talented Andy Daly, Semi-Pro (2008), saves the entire picture as the strict Principal Dwight, the seasoned funnyman delivering a number of rollicking moments throughout, whilst stand-up comedian Retta, Sex Ed (2014), is well cast as his ‘sidekick,’ Vice Principal Ida Stricker, the pair sharing some zesty on-screen interplay. Adam Pally, Dirty Grandpa (2016), is okay as Rafe’s homeroom teacher, the cool, rebellious Mr. Teller, who’s presented as being ‘hip,’ and therefore the only adult with a functioning brain. And oh, Napoleon Dynamite (2004) fans should look out for Efren Ramirez who pops up in a few scenes as the school’s disgruntled janitor Pedro … I mean Gus.
Uneven and illogical, though occasionally amusing, Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life is probably Steve Carr’s best picture in over a decade, but given his awful filmography, that’s not really saying much. Whatever the case, I’d much rather sit through The Worst Years of My Life again and again than have to endure 92 minutes of painful detention, that’s for sure!
2.5 / 5 – Alright
Reviewed by Mr. Movie