Kids' movies can be surprisingly deep, as Pixar and Disney have shown us, in part because they often want to convince parents that they'll be able to stand the incessant home-video replays. Those aimed at teenagers make up the bulk of mainstream tentpoles, and they also try for some appeal to older audiences. But movies targeting pre-teen audiences can be a bit of a wasteland.
To be fair, it's a tough balancing act. The last thing pre-teens want is "kids' stuff", but how do you avoid that without tripping over into PG-13 territory? The usual answer, when a movie even bothers to target this demographic, is either to pander to their puerility, or to sermonize (as we just saw in Milton's Secret).
But Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life manages to narrowly avoid both of these pitfalls. It's still a pre-teen movie, but it's one that tries to speak to them on their own level, rather than just sprinkling slightly naughtier humor into a script otherwise suitable for kids who have just begun to pay attention long enough to even watch a movie.
And a lot of that means understanding, and even encouraging their natural impulse to start testing boundaries in the effort to determine their own identities. This isn't a story where the "naughty" character eventually comes back to the fold and joins in with Productive Society after Learning a Valuable Lesson. This audience will smell that sanctimony a mile away, even if they don't yet know quite what they'd rather have in its place.
Rafe Khatchadorian (Griffin Gluck) has already gotten kicked out of two schools, which seems a little excessive, but I'll come back to that. His new school -- his last chance before the likes of a military academy or juvenile hall -- is run by the cartoonishly authoritarian Principal Dwight (Andy Daly) and his extensive code of conduct. It's the sort of school that has eliminated all funding for the arts and creative expression, with a curriculum oriented around Dwight's favorite standardized test: the BLAAR. This is hell for a kid like Rafe, so when Dwight destroys his prized sketchbook, he and his best friend Leo (Thomas Barbusca) start up an art-project rebellion: Operation R.A.F.E., for "Rules Aren't For Everyone".
Like Rafe's situation, Dwight and his rules can be ridiculous and unrealistic. But in fairness, that's kind of how life can feel in middle school. Similarly, Rafe's mom (Lauren Graham) has a new boyfriend (Rob Riggle) who is just as gross and awful as he could feel to a kid Rafe's age. That Rafe and his sister, Georgia (Alexa Nisenson) can see it and their mom can't speaks to a pre-teen's growing awareness of what's going on beneath the surface of things, and frustration that other people aren't talking about what now seems so obvious. Rafe's ability to sneak out of his house and into the school, staying up all night to execute his pranks is also pretty unbelievable, but it too goes along with the general strategy of taking pre-teen musings and turning them up to a nearly fantastic level.
The script sticks devotedly with Rafe's point of view. He has the first flutterings of interest in Jeanne (Isabela Moner) the overachieving sole member of the A/V club, but she stays at the periphery for most of the movie. There's a bully in his homeroom class (Jacob Hopkins), but he's more an annoyance than a secondary antagonist. Even the good teacher (Adam Pally) and the toady vice principal (Retta) are more like ideas that do useful things for the plot than fleshed-out characters. It might grow thin to more sophisticated audiences, but it's aimed dead-on at pre-teen solipsism.
Aside from an awkward, tear-jerking turn in the story, Middle School's tone manages to walk the line between kiddie movies and teen fare. Even when it dips into innuendo it does so with an impressive dry wit that really will fly over the heads of younger viewers while winking at the older ones and congratulating them for getting the joke. It never rises to the level of something adults might want to seek out on their own, but parents should consider this one a diamond in the rough.
Rating: 3 out of 5