It's not often you see a movie that captures the all too torturous years of middle school — perhaps because we'd all rather forget the horrors of seventh grade. Which is why "Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life" feels a bit unique. It's not about children or teenagers, but those awkward in-betweeners, kids straining at the boundaries of childhood. In this story, based on the book written by James Patterson and Chris Tebbetts, boundaries are, in fact, the enemy.
Directed by Steve Carr and adapted by Chris Bowman, Hubbel Palmer and Kara Holden, "Middle School" imagines a world in which institutions are evil, principals are tyrannical and all-out insurrection is the answer. It's a fun, rebellious romp that celebrates creativity and outside-the-box thinking, though parents might hope that their children won't be too inspired to copy the elaborate pranks that these characters pull off.
Griffin Gluck plays Rafe, a dreamer and a doodler who is never far from his sketchbook. Though he seems like a nice enough kid, he has a serious aversion to authority. Transferring into his third school of the year, he finds a worthy opponent in the rule book-obsessed principal. Adopting the motto "rules aren't for everyone" (R.A.F.E.), he and his best pal, Leo (Thomas Barbusca), set out to creatively break every rule in the book.
The key to the success of "Middle School" is the casting of comedy heavyweights in the roles of the adults. Lauren Graham plays Rafe's charming single mother, and she's about the only "normal" adult they encounter, aside from Adam Pally, who plays Mr. Teller, the cool homeroom teacher who uses hip-hop to teach about NAFTA. But the true genius lies in the casting of the villains: Andy Daly as uptight Principal Dwight and Rob Riggle as Rafe's dirtbag future stepdad Carl. Retta plays a fine lieutenant to Daly as Vice Principal Ida Stricker.
The kids in the film hold their own across from so many comedy favorites. Rafe's fierce little sister, Georgia (Alexa Nisenson), goes toe-to-toe with Carl, and Barbusca is at his rascally finest (if toned down a bit). The other students tend to hew to stereotypes or provide some quirk factor.
"Middle School" borrows its themes from '80s classics like "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" and "The Breakfast Club," but shows innovative style with animated sequences from Rafe's lively imagination. The characters step off the pages of his sketchbook, making his internal battles visual. It's a smart way to illustrate just how high-stakes these conflicts are for Rafe, though sometimes they are a digression from the story itself.
There's also a surprising sense of pathos to the story that reveals itself toward the end of the film. While it's a fascinating twist, it seems a bit unearned, and the movie doesn't fully tie up all the connections to the deeper psychological issues behind Rafe's behavior problems, though very few of the good adults see his pranks as problems.
There's a relevant message about recognizing and standing up to tyranny and oppression, which is a fine lesson for any age, though a bit loosely sketched within this fantasy about tossing out the rule book. But as it turns out, middle school doesn't have to be the worst after all.
Katie Walsh is a Tribune News Service film critic.
'Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life'
MPAA rating: PG, for rude humor throughout, language and thematic elements
Running time: 1 hour, 32 minutes
Playing: In general release