Review: 'Middle School' is pure wish fulfillment at its finest

Posted Tuesday, January 3, 2017 at 3:48 PM Central
Last updated Tuesday, January 3, 2017 at 3:48 PM Central

by John Couture

Everyone remembers Middle School, but few of us remember those years fondly. They are often those awkward years when boys and girls develop and lead to socially awkward encounters that many of us are thankful happened long before the invention of Facebook.

I have read many of James Patterson's novels, but even I was a bit surprised when he started to swerve from his traditional adult fare to the tame pastures of teen fiction. How could the writer of violent thrillers such as Kiss the Girls and Along Came a Spider possibly write for kids?

Well, I read Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life and I was pleasantly surprised that he was able to capture a certain nuance about adolescence that I often found in films and literature during my teen years in the 1980s. So, it was with a bit of trepidation and hope that I was looking forward to reviewing the film version of Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life, despite a lack of direct involvement from Patterson in the adaptation.

Thankfully, in cases like this, the movie truly is better than the book. There's something about the visual medium that really helps this story find its emotional touchstone. For instance, in the book, I always thought Bear was a bit too abusive and mean to Rafe and Georgia, almost to the point where I didn't believe that he had any redeeming characteristics that would attract Jules' affection.

But in the film, Rob Riggle is perfectly cast as Bear and his natural buffoonery helps to soften Bear's very real desire to eradicate Rafe and Georgia from their lives. In fact, Rob Riggle is so good here that he practically steals every scene that he's in. Ultimately, though, Bear is only a subplot and as such, some of his scenes had to be cut back in order to keep the pacing of the film on track. Thankfully, the bonus features allow deleted scenes like this one to survive the cutting room floor.

But Rob Riggle isn't the only shining star in the cast. The total ensemble is well chosen to best showcase the cast's strengths and to help bring the silliness of the situation to the screen. Lauren Graham is no stranger to playing the attractive mom character thanks to her spin on Gilmore Girls, but here she has actually matured to the point where her homespun wisdom doesn't feel like feint praise from someone who read a book on how to be a parent. No, her portrayal of Jules is very much an honest take on a mother who has continually put her children first in her life.

Another great surprise is the performance from Efren Ramirez. He sort of fell off the map since Napoleon Dynamite, but it's good to see that his comic brilliance can still be used to make a small, throw-away role anything but. His Gus is a character that wasn't in the book (although he's most likely a fill in for the Dragon Lady in that he helps Rafe along) but is one that is able to make the film better by his inclusion.

Finally, the visual style of the film is probably the thing that spoke to me the most. It really reminded me of Savage Steve Holland's work in the 1980s. In many ways, Middle School could be the prequel to Better Off Dead and One Crazy Summer. The same ethos of challenging authority permeates all three of these films and the use of animation in the middle of a mostly live-action film weaves a connective thread that is evocative of the creative aspects of the main protagonists.

All in all, this is a film that is fun to watch for the whole family. It is truly funny and steers clear of many of the cheesy tropes that are often the hallmark of family entertainment these days. Check out Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life now on DVD and Blu-ray.

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