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Agenda-driven 'Middle School' is a wasted opportunity

Posted October 9

“MIDDLE SCHOOL: THE WORST YEARS OF MY LIFE” — 1½ stars — Lauren Graham, Griffin Gluck, Rob Riggle; PG (rude humor throughout, language and thematic elements); in general release

At its core, “Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life” seems to be a statement about the shortcomings of standardized tests. That’s too bad, because a movie about the adolescent junior high minefield should have a lot more to say.

Based on the book by James Patterson and Chris Tebbetts, “Middle School” tells the story of Rafe (Griffin Gluck), a young teen who harbors some serious problems with authority figures. This is completely understandable, given that the authority figures in Rafe’s life are just as two-dimensional as the cartoons he is constantly doodling in his notebooks.

During the day, he has to deal with Principal Dwight (Andrew Daly), the principal of his new school, who is slavishly devoted to an expansive rulebook he uses to oppress the innocent minds under his care. When Rafe gets caught doodling during a school assembly, Dwight drops his book into a bucket of acid (yes, you read that correctly) to teach him a lesson.

When he goes home, Rafe has to deal with Bear (Rob Riggle), his mother’s equally over-the-top boyfriend. Bear is anxious to get Rafe and his kid sister Georgia (Alexa Nisenson) out of the way so he can have their mother Jules (Lauren Graham) all to himself … except when he’s openly flirting with restaurant waitresses.

Jules is on “Middle School’s” short list of characters who “get it,” though she remains completely blind to the antics of her boyfriend. This list also includes Jeanne (Isabela Moner), the president — and sole member — of the school’s AV club, Rafe’s best friend Leo (Thomas Barbusca) and Mr. Teller (Adam Pally), the obligatory “cool” teacher who spends his lectures referencing hip-hop artists and ranting about standardized testing in class.

To get back at Principal Dwight for disintegrating his book, Rafe concocts an elaborate plan whereby he and Leo will demonstrably (yet secretly) violate each of the school rules. This effort includes covering the principal’s office (and the hallways) with sticky notes, altering the school bell to make a fart sound and converting the trophy case into an aquarium.

Somehow, these efforts will also interfere with the school’s preparation to take a standardized test called the B.L.A.A.R. (Baseline Assessment of Academic Readiness), which seems to be the sole reason for Principal Dwight’s existence.

It isn’t hard to make an argument against standardized testing, but for a film subtitled “The Worst Years of My Life,” “Middle School” seems to leave a lot of potential material on the table. One positive is the imaginative animation sequences that spring to life out of Rafe’s doodles, reminiscent of John Cusack’s work in “Better Off Dead.” And “Napoleon Dynamite” fans will enjoy seeing Efren Ramirez in a supporting role as the school janitor.

But the references to those films almost makes things worse, reminding the audience of crazy school movies that do a much better job of keeping an even tone with their zany subjects. It would be easy to dismiss “Middle School’s” faulty internal logic and argue that it’s a movie for kids, played from the kids’ perspective, but the kids deserve better.

The tactful acting from veterans such as Graham and a jarring third-act twist just underscore how uneven director Steve Carr’s film feels. The genuine performances feel insincere against the cartoonish overacting from Riggle and Daly, and frequently the humor feels as if it’s reaching for a more adult rating.

As a made-for-TV movie, “Middle School” would be a harmless distraction, but as a full-price ticket, it’s too much of a stretch. Movies such as “Better Off Dead” and “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” have done a great job of bringing the high school experience to surreal life, but “Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life” has left the junior high nightmare untapped.

“Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life” is rated PG for rude humor throughout, language and thematic elements; running time: 92 minutes.

Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photographer who appeared weekly on "The KJZZ Movie Show" from 2013 to 2016. He also teaches English composition for Salt Lake Community College. Find him online at facebook.com/joshterryreviews.

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