Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life. Who can't relate to that sentiment? At school, you have to deal with peer pressure and bullies and, at home, you probably have issues with your siblings and parents who just don't understand. You may be experiencing your first real crush, but not know how to talk to that special someone Â– or what you're supposed to do after you manage to have a conversation. You're just starting to figure out who you are as a person, but there's still so much that you're not sure about. You're only beginning to make sense out of life, but you lack the life experience and perspective to understand what's important and what's not. You're confused, frustrated and maybe a little bit lost. You just wish you had someÂ… someÂ… control. All this is why the James Patterson novel turned-big-screen-adaptation "Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life" (PG, 1:32) is so relatable Â– and so fun.
Rafe Khatchadorian (Griffin Gluck) is having a rough year. His younger brother died of leukemia, his father has left the family, Rafe's often fighting with his even younger sister, Georgia (Alexa Nisenson), and his mother, Jules (Lauren Graham), is struggling with all of this and dating an obnoxious, two-faced, self-centered guy named Carl (Rob Riggle). Rafe deals with all this through the drawings and imaginative worlds he creates in his sketch book Â– and by acting out in school. In fact, Rafe has been expelled from two different schools and is transferring to the last school who will take him. In his new middle school, he really has only one friend, his partner-in-crime, Leo (Thomas Barbusca). Rafe does get along well with his homeroom teacher, Mr. Teller (Adam Pally), and he hopes that one day he can be more than friends with Jeanne (Isabela Moner), the sweet and socially conscious A.V. Club President. Unfortunately, Rafe's more immediate concerns at school are Miller (Jacob Hopkins), the bully who sits right behind him in class, the school's tough and unreasonable Vice Principal, Ida Stricker (Retta) and the strict disciplinarian and completely kid un-friendly, Principal Dwight (Andy Daly, the principal on TV's "Modern Family").
Principal Dwight only really cares about two things Â– his school's continued high scores on an annual achievement test known as the B.L.A.A.R. (Base Line Assessment of Academic Readiness) Â– and his long list of school rules which he enforces on his students without compassion. Dwight is the kind of principal who "welcomes" a new student by pointing out a slew of dress code violations before the new kid even enters the school for the first time Â– and then destroys that same student's treasured sketch book just because some kids were passing it around during a school assembly. At Leo's urging, Rafe decides to get his revenge on Dwight by destroying the principal's book Â– his rule book Â– as in, making it a goal to literally break every rule in the book, but not get caught. What follows is a series of creative and intricate pranks which inhabit their own Facebook page: "Rules Aren't For Everyone". While Rafe is busy with his own brand of "don't try this at home" stunts, he's also dealing with an escalating situation between him and Miller, Rafe's growing feelings for Jeanne and the increasingly serious relationship between his mom and Carl, whom he and his sister unflatteringly call "Bear".
"Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life" is very enjoyable and surprisingly poignant. While mainly focused on Rafe's complicated family life and his war with his principal, the story works in some subtle criticism of modern trends in education Â– and an emotional twist near the end that will shock those who haven't read the book. Daly makes a perfect antagonist (effectively supplemented by Retta's, Riggle's and Hopkins' characters), while Moner is fittingly adorable and Gluck and the other actors who play members of the Khatchadorian family create relatable and sympathetic characters. This cast is full of actors many Movie Fans will recognizeÂ… and have trouble placing, but they make for a great ensemble.
Throughout the movie, there are creative and entertaining animated sequences which bring Rafe's imaginative pen-and-ink creations to life Â– and his equally imaginative rule-breaking makes for some great (albeit over-the-top) visuals. Realism isn't the main consideration, but a sense of (relatively) harmless fun is Â– and that we get in spades. This story feels like it's actually being told from the perspective of a middle schooler Â– and is likely to have a lot of appeal for an audience of the same Â– and maybe even for their parentsÂ… and for the odd movie reviewer who remembers well the trauma of middle school, is happy just to have survived it and would've liked to have been as brave and resourceful as the main characters in this movie. "A-"