“Narratively empty”

by Steve Pulaski

Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life sounds like it could not only be the title of the autobiography of my life, but maybe your life and the lives of many others who endured such hellish years. Middle school is a time where puberty hits many of us like a brick-wall, bullying becomes more of a commonplace occurrence, and cliques begin to form, obscuring exactly where you fit in at the lunchroom table.

Does Middle School even begin to address any of those problems? Any of that anxiety people face, regardless of gender, orientation, or class? Absolutely not. It would much rather focus on an incredulous plot about a troubled student getting back at his principal by ostensibly breaking into the school in the wee hours of the morning, filling many walls with brightly colored Post-It notes and forcibly dying his hair pink. Most illogical.

The film follows Rafe Khatchadorian (Griffin Gluck), a new student at a local middle school, who has a real talent for drawing, despite not being able to keep himself in line. Hills Village Middle School, where he’s currently enrolled, is the last middle school in the area that will take him, putting him in grave danger of being permanently expelled. He seems to be on the right track until he begins to see the worst traits of Principal Dwight (Andy Daly), who runs the school as if it were a prison, with emphasis on wardrobes a lack of fun, as clearly highlighted in the school’s thick, uncompromising rule-book. Dwight is also hellbent on getting the students to overwhelmingly succeed on the upcoming B.L.A.A.R. standardized test that is coming up in just a matter of weeks.

Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life
Directed by
Steve Carr
Griffin Gluck, Lauren Graham, Alexa Nisenson
Release Date
7 October 2016
Steve’s Grade: D+

Rafe’s best friend Leo (Thomas Barbusca) finally convinces him that the two should go around school, anonymously breaking Dwight’s extensive list of rules in order to get back at “the man,” but also affirm that students should be creative and not always be bogged down by the out-of-touch rules made by adults. This gives Rafe a bit of a relief too, with his mother (Lauren Graham) dating Carl (Rob Riggle), an immature, childish buffoon despite her magically not seeing it, and the torment his little sister Georgia (Alexa Nisenson) causes him on a regular basis. The game plan’s title? “Rules Aren’t For Everyone,” named after the initials in our protagonist’s name.

The simple but effective moral of the film works in the sense that, even though it seems tired and played-out, it’s nonetheless relevant to the lives of kids today. This already places it higher in quality than the comparable Diary of a Wimpy Kid films, which were more about rampant, laughless silliness than exuding any kind of moral. However, Middle School doesn’t fair much better than, say, and episode of the Disney program Recess, which understood kids to a tee and didn’t need utterly awful jokes about “buttwipes” and excessive jokes about how a bully decides to manipulates Rafe’s last name.

The film bears a bit of life when the drawings inside Rafe’s notebook come to life, but because that notebook is discarded in a bucket of acid by Principal Dwight early in the film, it limits just how frequently these scenes occur. Also, there’s a fantastic scene involving Rafe’s homeroom teacher trying to explain the interworkings of free trade by comparing it to the way rappers Drake and Future collaborated on their mixtape What a Time to Be Alive, which is just hilarious, but glimmers of hope like these only become punctuated distractions from the mediocrity and lack of anything substantial on display here.

The film was based off a book by the ever-so-prolific author James Patterson, who has a great, subtle cameo here as well. Patterson’s Middle School novel could fairly be judged, once again, on the basis of the success Jeff Kinney’s journal-like series Diary of a Wimpy Kid endured at the dawn of the decade and still happily does. Another commonality of both is that both films should remain confined to books, as bringing them to life not only makes their incredulity more noticeable but effectively diminishes their impact by showing how narratively empty they are as stories.