Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life

Posted on October 6, 2016 at 5:53 pm

B+
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for rude humor throughout, language and thematic elements
Profanity: Some schoolyard language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Social drinking (adult)
Violence/ Scariness: Some peril, sad off-screen death of a child, parental abandonment and marital break-up, cartoonishly exaggerated adult villains, some misbehavior including vandalism and mayhem
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: October 7, 2016
Date Released to DVD: January 2, 2017
Amazon.com ASIN: B01LTHWXX4
Copyright Lionsgate 2016
Copyright Lionsgate 2016

This just might be the most accurate movie title of all time. Middle school is pretty much the worst years of everyone’s life. Terrible stress and tragedy happens at all ages, but it is the years from 12 to 14 where the internal turmoil and agonizing uncertainty are so acute that we still wince remembering them decades later. This film, based on the series of books by mega-bestselling author James Patterson (with Chris Tebbetts and illustrations by Laura Park) has some delightfully satisfying moments of fantasy revenge against a tyrannical, rules-obssessed principal and a borderline-abusive potential stepfather. But it sneaks in some quietly touching and surprisingly wise insights about loss and working with a “new normal.” Bright direction and an exceptionally engaging cast of kids make this film a genuine fall family treat.

Rafe Khatchadorian (Griffin Gluck) has been expelled from two schools (we never find out why) and has just one more chance. He would rather stay home all day and draw pictures in his notebook, where he has created a whole world of monsters and aliens, charmingly animated. “There’s a big world out there,” Rafe’s mother (Lauren Graham) tells him. “There’s a big world in there, too,” he says. And it is clear that is the world he prefers.

He does not even make it inside the building, though, when he meets the new school’s Principal Dwight (Andy Daly), who cares about just two things: his rules, and the school’s test score ranking. Dwight’s rules basically outlaw anything that is fun, friendly, expressive of individuality, or likely to keep the school from the #1 test score ranking Dwight cherishes so deeply that he has cultivated a number 1 bush by topiary in front of the school. Dwight’s consigliere/enforcer is Ida Stricker (“Parks and Recreation’s” Retta). So, bright, patterned shirts, talking in the hallways, even drawing in a notebook — all banned. There’s also a school bully who threatens to give Rafe “a wedgie so bad you’ll be able to taste your underwear.”

But there are three bright spots. Rafe’s best friend, Leo (Thomas Barbusca), is always there to make him laugh and spur him on. There’s a friendly girl named Jeannie (Isabela Moner), and a kind, sympathetic teacher (“Happy Endings'” Adam Pally) who uses the Drake and the Wu-Tang Clan to teach the class about macroeconomic trends. Rafe decides to take on Dwight by breaking every rule, with Leo’s help. Meanwhile, Rafe’s mom is getting serious with the boyfriend Rafe and his sister call “Bear” (Rob Riggle in his usual role of a walking Axe body spray).

The revenge fantasy is funny and satisfying, mostly about making the pompous Principal Dwight look silly. And it gives Rafe a way to begin to make new friends, to resolve issues with the school bully, and to think through the other problems in his life.

The film is bright and fun, like its sparkling soundtrack of pop songs. The young actors are refreshingly natural and Barbusca has great comic timing. Rafe’s sister Georgia (Alexa Nisenson) and love interest Jeanne (Isabela Moner) are real characters, smart and capable. When the more serious issues arise, it is organic and sensitively handled. The pranks are signed RAFE, which stands for “rules aren’t for everyone.” But this movie is.

Parents should know that this film includes schoolyard epithets, potty humor, references to death of a child, parental abandonment, and marital breakup, comically exaggerated adult villains, cartoon-style peril, and tween misbehavior including driving and mild vandalism.

Family discussion: What is the best way to challenge unfair rules? What school rules would you like to change?

If you like this, try: “Harriet the Spy,” “How to Eat Fried Worms,” and the book series that inspired the film

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Based on a book Comedy Coming of age DVD/Blu-Ray Pick of the Week Family Issues School Stories About Kids Tweens

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