92 min. | PG
Budding young artist Rafe Khatchadorian (Griffin Gluck) is starting over at his third middle school, a place governed by the rules-obsessed Principal Dwight (Andrew Daly) and his chief enforcer. As a tonic to the school’s rigidity, Rafe and his only friend Leo embark on a plan to break every one of the rules in the school’s handbook. Their plots are quite ingenious and creative, qualities that make the perpetrators Public Enemy No. 1 to the humorless martinets that run the school.
Based on one of the books in James Patterson’s bestselling YA Middle School series, the film mixes the live action with vivid cartoons coming to life from the pages of Rafe’s sketchbook. The film is reminiscent of some of the best aspects of John Hughes’ teen movies: playful with strong emotional centers that ground their suburban teen rebels. Rafe sublimates his troubles at home into his artwork; when Principal Dwight liquidates Rafe’s sketchbook, the middle-schooler takes out his frustrations with defiant actions in which each school infraction is practically an art installation.
At home, single mom Jules is working double shifts and leaves much of the child-tending to the stepfather-to-be, a lout who’s comically caricatured in Rafe’s sketches as Bear. His younger sister Georgia is all right, but the family still feels the ache of the absent middle child, Rafe’s younger brother who died a couple years previously. At school, Rafe experiences his first pangs of love for the like-minded young rebel Jeannie.
Deft film-making moves quickly past the film’s implausibilities, and particularly good performances by the younger actors make the story credible. Any pubescent kid ought to find plenty to relate to. Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life invites kids to thumb their noses at their socially validated oppressors.