‘Middle School: The Worst Years of my Life’ is the Experience Kids Wish They Had

Photo Credit: CBS Films

Rafe (Griffin Gluck) is on his last chance. Kicked out of his last two schools, he has to make the next one work. Thanks to a school principal (Andy Daly) who adds new rules to the code of conduct everyday though, he just can’t seem to catch a break. When Principal Dwight destroys Rafe’s beloved sketch book, it’s the last straw. He sets out to destroy the rule book; he just has to do it without getting caught.

Aimed at a younger audience, and it shows, Middle School: The Worst Years of my Life takes a kid-friendly story and makes it entertaining for the entire family, though it’s not without a few missteps.

The adults in the story, as often happens with the kid-friendly set, are shallowly written and seen more as cardboard cutouts than real people. There’s no subtlety to the “villains” in the script. You hate the principal, and even Rafe’s mother’s boyfriend (Rob Riggle) because of how vile they treat the kids around and you love Rafe’s mom (Lauren Graham) and Mr. Teller (Adam Pally) because they don’t. That’s how adults are drawn for kids - they are either all bad or all good - but adults know that isn’t really the case. Kids don’t get to see that here.

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The story itself is also incredibly short. Rafe has a list of more than 86 rules in the middle school code of conduct that he intends to find ways to break. They include some truly inventive gems - like just how he decides to touch the trophy case that students aren’t supposed to put their hands on. There are only a few of the broken rules highlighted though and the story barrels right on through them in favor of getting to the thrilling conclusions, not trusting kids in the audience to stick with a story for longer than 90 minutes.

That being said, the creativity the story exhibits (based on James Patterson’s novel) is fantastic. Not only are the ways Rafe breaks the rules fun, but so is the way Rafe’s imagination is highlighted outside of breaking the rules. He’s never without his trusty sketchbook and a pen, constantly dreaming up new characters or drawing the people around him how he really sees them. The sketches, in turn, leap off the page through 2D animation. The sketches are the perfect blend of a teen’s work and a professional animator. The animation adds a touch of whimsy to the film and brings Rafe’s mind to life.

I found myself surprised by Adam Pally here. Maybe because, like most adults in the audience, I’m used to seeing him in slacker roles or comic relief. Here, he’s a teacher who wants his middle schoolers to understand fair trade through writing hip hop and asks them to familiarize themselves with the Wu Tang clan. Younger members of the audience won’t appreciate that, but adults will get a chuckle out of it. His unconventional teaching style is often championed in movies, and the anti-standardized-testing stance in the movie isn’t subtle, but it’s most definitely going to be welcomed by kids who are tired of being taught how to test and parents who watch them do it.

Isabela Moner, who plays the president of the audio visual club and inspired Rafe’s new rule breaking streak, is going to be a star. The young actress also sings, though that’s not showcased in the movie, and she’s already got quite the following through her work on Nickelodeon. Middle School might just be the big break into the big screen that she’s looking for. Despite playing the character in the film that would ordinarily be showcased as an outcast and school nerd in another movie for kids, here, she’s allowed to sparkle. The audience has no problem understanding why Rafe is immediately drawn to her.

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The highlight of performances in the film though has got to be Alexa Nisenson, who stars as Georgia, Rafe’s little sister. She’s a firecracker with perfect timing and not a single moment of hesitation in her dramatic scenes. She gets to be the annoying little sister, the partner in crime, and the smart kid taking on the big bad adult all at once. She gets to show more range than most of the other performers in the movie, and this is her first time on the big screen. Just between Nisenson and Moner, this movie is a showcase for up and coming talent.

There is, interestingly, a twist that comes three-quarters of the way into the story that readers of the book will see coming, but most of the youngest members of the audience will not. The more savvy movie-watching adults will see it coming, but it’s no less satisfying as a result.

Middle School: The Worst Years of my Life showcases teenage rebellion in a way that kids can relate to as Rafe stands up for himself and his classmates and risks getting himself into trouble that he can’t come back from. It’s fun, if predictable, and a great family film that everyone can enjoy.