NEW YORK — Kids the same age as its preteen main character are clearly the target audience for “Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life” (Lionsgate/CBS Films).
But numerous elements in the film seem ill-suited to such youthful viewership. In particular, parents may not care for the underlying message of this comedy which charts – with glowing approval – its protagonist’s revolt against scholastic authority.
Naturally, the script – penned by Chris Bowman, Hubbel Palmer and Kara Holden – gives Rafe Khatchadorian (Griffin Gluck) an ostensibly good reason for his rebellion. Having been shown the door at two previous institutions, artistically gifted but mildly troubled Rafe lands at Hills Village Middle School only to find it ruled by rigid Principal Dwight (Andy Daly) and his excessively restrictive code of conduct: No wearing this or that item of clothing, no loitering in the halls, no touching the trophy case, etc.
In response, Rafe launches a campaign of mostly harmless pranks, each designed to be a blatant and humorous violation of one of Principal Dwight’s petty regulations. Drawing on the spelling of his name, he gives his insurrection the motto “Rules Aren’t for Everyone.”[su_pullquote align=”right”]The film contains cohabitation, youthful defiance of authority, mature themes, including the death of a child, much scatological humor, a handful of crass terms, some wordplay and brief sexual references. The Catholic News Service classification is A-III – adults. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG – parental guidance suggested. [/su_pullquote]
Rafe is aided in planning and executing his stunts by his best friend, Leo (Thomas Barbusca). He’s also supported, in his results at least, by Jeanne (Isabela Moner), the sprightly classmate for whom he has fallen, though she’s not in on the secret of who’s behind the hijinks.
The opening scene has shown us that Rafe likes to stay awake all night drawing, and the fact that he and Leo now pass the wee hours carrying out their low-key deviltry will raise another red flag for grownups.
Despite the benign nature of much of Rafe’s uprising, director Steve Carr’s screen version of James Patterson and Chris Tebbetts’ novel does briefly veer into endorsing vandalism. This arises in connection with Rafe’s domestic troubles.
His sympathetic mom, Jules (Lauren Graham), has agreed to marry – and, from the time of the engagement, has already shacked up with – her creep of a boyfriend, Carl (Rob Riggle). As the audience figures out long before Jules ever does, Carl’s true love is his expensive sports car. Thus this vehicle becomes a target in Rafe and his younger sister Georgia’s (Alexa Nisenson) war on Carl, a battle that parallels the one Rafe is waging at school.
As the live action alternates with animated sequences – Rafe’s cartoon sketches come to life – much of the juvenile humor hovers at the level of a routine sitcom episode. Perhaps surprisingly, the film’s dramatic elements, by contrast, are handled deftly and to poignant effect.
Even this asset entails another warning to parents, though, since the serious part of the story revolves around the death from cancer, before the movie starts, of Rafe’s younger brother.
All told, while “Middle School” is probably acceptable for older teens, their juniors should only be given permission to see it after very careful consideration – if at all.
Some material may not be suitable for children.
(Mulderig is on the staff of Catholic News Service.)