Movie Review: ‘Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life’
Director: Steve Carr
Cast: Griffin Gluck, Lauren Graham, Rob Riggle, Thomas Barbusca, Andy Daly, Adam Pally, Retta
Plot: Rafe has been kicked out of two schools and is now accepted to Hills Village Middle School, where the strict principal melts his sketch book in acid as a punishment. In order to exact revenge Rafe sets out to break every rule in the school.
Review: There’s very little middle ground with movies made for and about high school kids. Either they’re great or they suck. The difference between the good and he bad tends to be down to respect for the audience. Movies like She’s All That feels like the producers and director view teenagers as consumers rather than people or thinking, feeling audience members while better movies like The Breakfast Club and Mean Girls seem to respect their audience and acknowledges the conflicts and emotions they feel.
Middle School has hallmarks of both, in that someone along the line respected their audience but it’s gone through a filter of people who want to make a quick buck from kids. I’m going to assume the original book series by James Patterson (holy shit…really?) and Chris Tebbetts was more genuine, but the movie was more interested in using the brand name to fill out their release schedule. It feels rushed. More time needed to have been spent ironing out plot inconsistencies and applying some comedic timing to the editing.
The first thing any underdog story will need is a likeable hero, and should avoid a dead-eyed actor with a dudebro haircut.
You’ll also need to be invested in his conflict. Rafe gets off to a bad start at his new school when he knocks over some random bits of plastic. This makes a bad first impression. We know this because an extra says from off screen “talk about making a bad first impression”. Remember what we said about respecting your audience? Assume they can comprehend commonly used narrative tropes without a verbal explanation. Then we meet a 0.5 dimensional school bully who wants to beat up Rafe because…he’s a bully. Way to make us invest in this rivalry.
Anyway, Rafe wants to break all the school rules. The bulk of the film revolves around him pulling off improbable tasks like covering the entire interior of the school in post-it note art in one night, and the entire multi-story building exterior in graffiti art in another night. On one night he converts a trophy cabinet into a functional tropical aquarium. The problem is that we don’t know what rules these are breaking. Often there’ll be a shot of Rafe crossing one out in the rule book without us ever being able to read what they are.
One of the biggest inconsistencies relates to the countdown timer to the standardized tests that the rule breaking is going to disrupt because students are distracted. Then the principle works out that excluding the remedial class Rafe is in, the test scores will be fine. So…all the rule breaking wasn’t having an effect at all and the central conflict was moot.
Then there’s more. Rafe’s sister is worried that he’s going to be sent to a military school and implores him to stop all the rule breaking…that nobody suspects was him at all so there’s no correlation between the two. The principal tempts Rafe by saying that he has the chance to get back at the class who have been so mean to him…but with the exception of the pointless bully making unfulfilled threats they haven’t done anything to him. Rafe threatens to turn on the sprinklers as a way of protecting his class…and then immediately turns them on before getting anything. If the teachers are meant to be so strict, why aren’t they doing something about kids using their phones and talking during assemblies?
All these inconsistencies make the movie feel rushed out with little thought or passion behind it. Except for the sprinkler scene – the montage of 15 year old Isabela Moner dancing in the slow motion while being hosed down goes on way to long and feels downright voyeuristic and uncomfortable. You quickly get to the point where you have to question how much time they’d spent filming this sequence.
Then we come to Leo, Rafe’s best friend. He turns up in the film with no explanation or backstory, just someone who has a history with the main character that we’re not going to get into. Also, while the vice-principal is laying into Rafe about loitering in the hallway, Leo stands in front of her making quips and she totally ignores him. It’s at this point, about 30 seconds into the character’s introduction, that it becomes immediately clear what the twist is going to be.
The film also features sporadic animated sequences. The animation is pretty solid and creative, but they needed to be better integrated into the film. Replacing the finale action scene with one was a poor choice. Rafe does get a laugh from the class drawing the ‘bully with the bad hair’ from his class, but weirdly the drawing has Rafe’s hair.
Fortunately the movie does have some good points, they just sit in the background instead of being front and centre. Rob Riggle is amusing as the loud-mouthed step-father potential, and Rafe’s weirdly mature younger sister is downright cool. Good young talent there. When we finally get to the plot thread about Rafe’s brother having died (something that people tend to ignore for most of the film) the handle the scene well and manage to wring some emotion from the script.
Overall it’s the comedy that falls flat. Very few jokes work in between flat delivery and shonky editing. There’s some odd moments, like the principal using acid to destroy Rafe’s sketches and the love interest being a hipster who records on VHS, but the film doesn’t commit to this style of humour, so they feel out of place. If they’d stuck to this weird surrealism all the way through they may have had more success.
Rating: THREE out of TEN