Sunday, October 9, 2016

Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life

3.5/4

Starring: Griffin Gluck, Andy Daly, Thomas Barbusca, Alexa Nisenson, Lauren Graham, Rob Riggle, Retta, Adam Pally

Rated PG for Rude Humor Throughout, Language and Thematic Elements

Ugh.  Middle school.  The time when bodies change, hormones kick in, school becomes more competitive, parents begin to think they can walk over everyone to get their kid into an Ivy League school and so on.  It's one thing that pretty much everyone can agree on: middle school sucks.  You're too old to be a kid yet too young to be an adult, and never ways that benefit you.

"Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life" manages the tricky task of showing how horrible an experience it is while still making it into a feel-good comedy.  It tells the story of Rafe (Gluck), a kid with an appetite for pranks and mischief and an aptitude for drawing and imagination.  He's been kicked out of two middle schools and on the last one in the district.  He tries to make it work but when a caricature of the rule-obsessed Principal Dwight (Daly) ends up with him dissolving it in a bucket of acid, it's all out war.  Together with his best pal Leo (Barbusca) they set out to take down Dwight and take back the school.  Meanwhile, he and his sister Georgia (Nisenson) try and deal with the fact that their mom (Graham) is head over heels in love with Carl (Riggle), who is a jerk except when she's around.

This is a funny movie that touches the heart.  There are few belly laughs, but plenty of smiles and good cheer.  One reason is that Rafe is so likable.  Griffin Gluck is a great movie hero.  He's shy and awkward around girls and authority figures, but he's a good soul who simply likes to cause mischief.  And it's so nice to see a kid with an active imagination.  In a very clever touch, he imagines his drawings come to life to help him deal with his problems.  The device is awkwardly employed, but it's so creative and fun that I didn't care.

He's surrounded by a great cast, most of whom are unknowns.  Andy Daly plays a truly annoying twit that's easy to hate, Lauren Graham makes a great mom, Rob Riggle is an unbelievably self-centered jerk, and Adam Pally is terrific as the cool teacher we all wish we had.  The stand-outs are the kids.  Gluck is delightful and so are his frequent on-screen companions, Alexa Nisenson and especially Thomas Barbusca.  Nisenson plays Georgia, his younger sister who isn't nearly as bratty and precocious as she initially appears to be.  And Thomas Barbusca plays Leo, Rafe's best friend and partner in crime.  The scenes between the two of them are the highlights.  They don't have the same chemistry as Ben, Carter and Augie in last year's criminally underrated "Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse," but it comes close.

A movie like this is rare.  I actually wanted more from the film.  More time spent with the characters and more shenanigans (which would have been more effective had the film told us the specific rules Rafe was breaking with each prank, but whatever).  I understand that the book was popular enough to spawn some sequels (no doubt this made it much more popular in the eyes of CBS Films).  I hope they get made.  A movie that casts this beautiful of a spell and is this much fun deserves to be nurtured.  You don't get the magic that you get with this in many films.  And considering the crap that is getting franchises, it would be nice to see a sequel to a movie that really deserves it.

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