Channeling the spirit of John Hughes and playing like a tween version of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life delivers an easily digestible and amusing portrait of youthful hijinks that should well please its target audience. Based on the best-selling book series by James Patterson (does that man ever sleep?), the family-oriented film should prove modestly successful in its theatrical release before enjoying a long life in home video formats.
The story centers on Rafe (Griffin Gluck), an artistic-minded kid who’s forever doodling and drawing in his sketchbook and who, because of his rebellious ways, is entering his third middle school. He immediately runs afoul of the school’s Principal Dwight (Andy Daly of Comedy Central’s Review), whose strict “Code of Conduct” contains more rules than Rafe could possibly adhere to.
Should please its tween target audience.
When Principal Dwight confiscates and then destroys his sketchbook after its irreverent drawings cause a ruckus during a school meeting, Rafe, supported by his best friend Leo (Thomas Barbusca), embarks on a plan of revenge dubbed “Operation R.A.F.E.,” short for “Rules Aren’t for Everyone.” The campaign entails a series of elaborate pranks, including the walls of the school being plastered with thousands of Post-It Notes and the trophy case transformed into an aquarium, complete with eel and lobster. Meanwhile, Rafe finds himself desperately attracted to his brainy classmate Jeanne (Isabel Moner), who shows signs of returning his interest.
Although he has loving relationships with his supportive mother Jules (Lauren Graham) and sassy younger sister Georgia (Alexa Nisenson), Rafe finds himself at odds with Jules’ boorish boyfriend Carl (Rob Riggle), who misses no opportunity to denigrate the kids. And while his warfare with Principal Dwight and the vice-principal (Retta) escalates, Rafe receives moral support from Mr. Teller (Adam Pally), the sort of cool, hip teacher who explains the concept of free trade by using the example of a Drake/Future mixtape.
The formulaic proceedings are frequently enlivened by clever animated sequences in which Rafe’s drawings come to life to illustrate his fantasies, with a plot twist arriving late in the film delivering an unexpected emotional punch.
Director Steve Carr (Paul Blart: Mall Cop, Daddy Day Care) keeps things moving at a suitably brisk pace. The winning performances by the young leads (especially Nisenson, who’s a hoot as the coffee-drinking, car-driving tyke, Georgia) are further assets, as is the amusing turn by Daly, doing his best to rival Jeffrey Jones’ memorable portrayal of Edward Rooney in Ferris Bueller, as the buffoonish, authoritarian principal.
Distributor: Lionsgate, CBS Films
Production companies: CBS Films, James Patterson Entertainment, Participant Media, Rovio Entertainment
Cast: Griffin Gluck, Lauren Graham, Alexa Nisenson, Andy Daly, Thomas Barbusca, Retta, Adam Pally, Isabela Moner
Director: Steve Carr
Screenwriters: Chris Bowman, Hubbel Palmer, Kara Holden
Producers: Leopoldo Gout, Bill Robinson
Executive producers: James Patterson, Steve Bowen, Jeff Skoll, Robert Kessel, Susan Cartsonis, Michael Flynn
Director of photography: Julio Macat
Production designer: Perry Andelin Blake
Editors: Wendy Greene Bricmont, Craig Herring
Costume designer: Olivia Miles
Composer: Jeff Cardoni
Casting: Jeanne McCarthy, Nicole Abellera
Rated PG, 92 minutes