BY ROGER THOMAS
It has been many years since I was in Middle School. In fact, way back in 1975 to 1978, the years before my High School career begin, we called it Junior High. Junior High was three years, seventh, eighth and ninth grades respectively. It has been thirty-eight years since I was in “Middle School,” but I have to agree with the title of the film, those were some of the very worst years of life.
As for the film, it is a mixed bag. There are parts that work well and are very creative and there are whole scenes and plots that simply do not work. The screenplay is based on a book by James Patterson and Chris Tebbetts. Having not read the book, I can only comment on the strengths and weaknesses of the film. I am curious if the weaknesses of the film originated in the source material or are the product of the three screenwriters, Chris Bowman, Hubbel Palmer and Kara Holden.
Let’s start with what works. The casting of Griffin Gluck was a smart decision. This young actor a great deal of experience, mostly filled with television performances. Gluck’s Rafe is a hero you want to root for.
Second, there is a secret in the film. I, as probably most adults will, figured it out really quickly but the younger audience members, the true demographic for this film, may be surprised when the truth is revealed.
Then there is animation which is the most creative part of the film. It looked good, very colorful and used just enough so that the audience can understand what Rafe is thinking as he is experiencing his “worst year.”
The humor in the film works some of the time while on other occasions it is weak, but then again, it is a film written for middle-schoolers.
“Middle School” also makes several statements about standardize testing. I took standardized testing forty-something years ago. My children have taken them and will again. I am not opposed to standardized testing, but the film offers some interesting points about the procedures.
As for weaknesses, all of the adults are much less developed than the children. The stereotypes could have been adjusted a little more. The angry principal, the aggressive assistant principal, the cool teacher, the clueless mom, and mom’s boyfriend who is obviously is evil only though mom cannot see it, all these are simply too predictable.
Also, movie pranks always work, no questions asked. The stunts that Rafe pulls off in the school are extreme. I know they are supposed to be exaggerated beyond anything that would happen in the real world. However, I found myself asking how much would it cost if you had to buy all the post-it notes used in one prank. Or how much did the Eel cost? The stunts are quite creative, but none of them dwell in reality.
Which brings me back to the best the film had to offer. The moments when reality pauses the comedy, those are special times. One cannot help but like Rafe, thanks to the performance of Gluck, yet, he is most likable when he is playing a real kid, not a child trapped in a film filled with fantastic pranks and one dimensional adults. At least that is what this old man thinks.
I survived Middle School, or Junior High back in the good old days. I was the kid who never did anything wrong. Rafe does things I would have never attempted, but I would like to hope that some of Rafe’s best qualities were inside of me when I was that age and in my own children as they navigate High School and Middle School.