Monday, October 10, 2016

God Save the Tween:

Barely passable entertainment for anyone in the market for a Diary of a Wimpy Kid rip-off, Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life is an undemanding 90-minute tween sitcom. Aside from the programming on Nickelodeon and the Disney Channel, there’s little in the way of live action antics for kids to enjoy, so in that limited sense this fits a niche. But somehow I bet even children will find the whole picture drifting with the whiffs of second-hand inspiration. Based on a book series by James Patterson and Chris Tebbetts, it takes a familiar route. There’s a lead kid, a middle schooler who likes to draw and narrates his misadventures with family, friends, and teachers. But unlike Greg Heffley, the constantly embarrassed Ben Stiller type anchoring the Wimpy movies, Middle School has a protagonist who is mostly confident and the coolest rebel in school. His problems aren’t internal so much as a constant barrage of awful adults ruining his fun. Rafe Khatchadorian, the silliest kids’ book character name I’ve heard in ages, breezes into a new school ready to take on the establishment, willing to wage a covert prank attack on the stuffy suits and the petty rules.

I don’t know what made me feel older while watching this movie. For a while I thought it would be that I found the adults perspective more relatable and reasonably amusing while the kids were simply going through a hackneyed plot with obvious beats. But then, late in the picture, a girl patiently explains what a VCR is and that did it. I’m officially watching these young people movies through old eyes. Maybe that’s why I took the most delight in seeing comedian Andy Daly play the rules-obsessed principal. He has a way of smoothly projecting bland competence while oozing condescension and being totally transparent about his insecurities. It’s funny enough. His second in command is Retta, who here is the exact opposite of her Parks & Rec free spirit, snapping at students to keep them in line and getting the obligatory knocked-over-by-hundreds-of-balls-falling-from-a-closet gag. Elsewhere is the only teacher we meet, a trying-too-hard-to-be-cool-and-relatable one (Adam Pally). Then there’s Rafe’s warm single mother (Lauren Graham) with a monstrously dumb boyfriend (Rob Riggle). They all seem to be enjoying themselves.

The grown-ups have the mild eccentricities and heavy lifting, but the kids aren’t so bad. They’re likable enough. Rafe (Griffin Gluck) slowly pulls back some layers on his tween bravado, revealing some real emotional pain fueling his rebellion. Doing respectable work with their stereotypes are his silly friend (Thomas Barbusca), his crush (Jessi Goei), and his precocious little sister (Alexa Nisenson, who gets the cutest quips, but is also good in a surprisingly dramatic scene late in the game). They get some good lines, and the young audience won’t care so much that the adults in the crowd will be restless. The kids fit the movie’s tone as a light, soft, well meaning, and generally genial kids’ comedy. It even has some unobjectionable ideas to impart. His sketchbook drawings may come to life in distracting animated daydream interludes, too dull and flavorless to really add to the narrative, but there’s something nice about his artistic spirit. It adds to the movie’s basically harmless messages of self-empowerment, creativity, teamwork, and appropriately mild anti-authoritarian impulses.

What is middle school but a time to start chafing against the restrictions of childhood? A movie like this lets the tween id run free in (mostly) squeaky clean safe environments where nothing too bad will ever happen. Rafe can put sticky notes all over the school or fill a trophy case like an aquarium, dye his principal’s hair, shred standardized tests, or fill the sprinkler system with paint. But it’s all for a good cause in this comfortably consequence-light vision of the world. (And the pranks are so unwieldy and impractical there’s little worry of kids copying. Not that that’ll necessarily stop them from trying.) Of course it’s a movie with some instantly dated cultural references (like a tired swipe at the Kardashians) and booming contemporaneous pop music. It’s also a movie with a chaste crush, a few implied profanities, and a final comeuppance for the meanest adult including a wagon full of manure. Directed with a brisk, bright, bland style by Paul Blart’s Steve Carr from a screenplay by Kara Holden (a Disney Channel Original Movie veteran), the movie’s not worth getting worked up over. It does about what you’d expect at the level you’d assume, no better and no worse.

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