'Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life'
Middle school is a tough time for anyone. That awkward age between kiddie innocence and rebellious teenage freedom is always awkward. The entertainment made for that age group, which mixes childish immaturity and cloying attempts pandering drama, doesn’t help much. We all know from any ‘tween hero that adults just don’t get them, man. Never is that more clear than in movies like ‘Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life’, an uncomfortable seesaw between cartoon slapstick and weepy melodrama that feels like it could irritate just about anyone, especially the target demographic.
Griffin Gluck stars as the unfortunate middle school hero, Rafe. He’s a creative artsy-fartsy sort who sketches endlessly and frequently disappears into crude animated fantasies of those drawings. His home life is fraught, thanks to a recent tragedy, a bratty sister and mom’s new jerk of a boyfriend. Rafe has been booted out of a few schools and has one last chance at public education before being shipped off to military school. Unfortunately, that school is run by a rule obsessed principal (Andy Daly) who’s determined to ensure that no kids have any fun in his presence. Obviously, Rafe doesn’t respond well to that environment. He gets rebellious and just might get all the kids to join him in an attack on authority!
Based on a book by one man publication factory James Patterson (along with Chris Tebbetts), the script for ‘Middle School’ is all over the place. Dialogue is clunky, plotting is pedestrian, and the tone is wildly all over the place. At times, the movie plays as a mawkish cartoon of pre-teen frustrations. At other time it’s a syrupy soap opera that attempts to cram in life lessons that the book’s two authors and the movie’s three screenwriters don’t quite seem to understand. As directed by ‘Paul Blart: Mall Cop’ veteran Steve Carr, the movie is an explosion of overblown bathroom jokes and colors so wildly bright it feels like a 1990s family comedy on amphetamines. Not unlike the most annoying kid in your middle school class, the movie tries so desperately to be liked in every conceivable way that it just comes off as irritating.
There are some bright spots thanks to the cast, though. Griffin Gluck holds things together fairly well as the lead, maintaining some level of dignity and realism within all the nonsense exploding against the walls around him. Andy Daly is frequently priceless as the evil principal. The long-time comedy vet has a knack for creating grotesque characters out of the least assuming middle class appearances. He rarely gets jokes suited to his talents here, but when Daly finds something to latch onto, he soars. Other folks fare worse thanks to the limitations of the script. Even the dependable likes of Lauren Graham and Rob Riggle are stuck in such tiresomely two-dimensional versions of adults that they can’t add much to the limp story. Still, at least the main hero and villain are cast well enough to be decent.
Unfortunately, that’s really the best thing that can be said about ‘Middle School’. The movie never has a moment where the actual angst of that setting is displayed. It’s all been so overblown into mawkish melodrama and cloying comedy that nothing registers as remotely realistic or relatable. There are some decent fart jokes, though. Age appropriate viewers as undemanding as the filmmakers assume they are will find some laughs, I suppose. It’s just a shame that Gluck and Daly didn’t get a movie worthy of their good kid vs. bad principal chops. They play it convincingly like they’re starring in a better movie about the same subject. Too bad no one else involved in the project bothered to give them material worth their time or talents.