This one faced a serious challenge for me. I work at a middle school so I found myself constantly thinking that the things that were happening were just so unbelievable that it was pulling me out of the movie. I found it considerably more difficult to suspend my disbelief for this film that was based on a bestselling novel.
And suspending disbelief was absolutely necessary to accept anything that was happening at this school.
Still, there was a surprisingly emotional and deep character heart in this movie that I was not expecting. I have never read any of the Middle School book series so I did not know any potential spoilers heading into this film, but there were some definite moments that I found very heart warming and full of heart.
Rafe (Griffin Gluck) was onto his third school in the last year, having been expelled from two others. This was a hopeful new start. However, he discovered that the new school was controlled and oppressed by an overbearing principal named Dwight (Andrew Daly). Principal Dwight had a rule book that he insisted that all students follow without exception, much to Rafe’s chagrin.
Rafe, a talented artist, had his sketchbook confiscated by the rules-mad principal and it was destroyed. Angry from this slight, Rafe decided, with the support of his friend Leo (Thomas Barbusca), that he would break every rule in Dwight’s rule book as revenge. Rafe went about pulling amazingly complex and difficult pranks to make the principal look foolish.
The story was told with several breaks into animation, where pictures that Rafe had drawn would come to life to tell the story. Some of these moments with the animation worked, however, many more of them flopped badly. Most of the animated sections of the film from the first 30-45 minutes were not an effective use of animation.
Griffin Gluck was a charming actor who did an admirable job as the lead character. He also displayed some surprisingly strong emotional scenes when the Sixth Sense-like twist was revealed. I give the film full credit that I never saw that twist coming and when a film can surprise me, it has earned some respect.
Yet, my own life at a middle school made it nearly impossible to just ignore the gaping plot holes that filled this story. Griffin was able set up all these amazing pranks somehow. Apparently, there is no camera system in the school. Also, I guess he can get in and out of the school at any hours.
Principal Dwight was as one note of a villain as you are going to see. He had no reason to be as over-the-top as he was, or at least, I did not understand why he was the way he was. To make it worse, they added another horrible person as the vice principal Ida Stricker (Retta) making there be two wastes of characters. The film had the friendly and kind teacher trope as well with Mr. Teller (Adam Pally) who did not like the choices of the administration.
The only area that I could relate to was the comments the film was making on education being too dependent on standardize tests these days. Principal Dwight took some desperate steps to make sure that his students were number one on these tests. Yes, he was cartoonish in this film, but I know that many dramatic steps are taken to make sure that students do their very best on this type of assessment. There have also been stories of schools cheating on the tests, which this film highlights.
I was also impressed with the acting skill of Alexa Nisenson, who played the role of Rafe’s sister Georgia. This little girl brought a realness that much of this movie was missing. The interactions between Rafe and Georgia were among my favorite scenes in the film. The inclusion of scene stealer Rob Riggle as the unwanted and mean spirited fiance to Rafe’s mother (Lauren Graham) may have been too much. Riggle is always entertaining, even when his role is weak, and this is no exception.
Middle School: The Worst Years of my Life was not the worst time at the movies I had ever had. In fact, there were many moments that I truly enjoyed. The problem was there was not enough of these wonderful scenes to fill out a movie, and the parts that were bad were quite bad. I found my own life as a middle school teacher interfered with the necessary suspension of disbelief to truly enjoy the film. Still, there were some real emotion and heart here, especially with the child actors.