‘Middle School’ Movie Is Fun for Students, and a Sticky Situation for Principals

By Mark Walsh — October 07, 2016 3 min read
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Middle school principals may have been shaking in their blazers as they watched the ubiquitous TV promos in recent weeks for a movie that opens Friday.

“Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life,” is based on the first book of James Patterson’s Middle School series for young readers. From those promos alone, anyone would know that Mr. Dwight (Andrew Daly), the principal of Hills Village Middle School, is a foe of student creativity and a stickler for his school rules.

Within minutes of the first day of school for the movie’s hero, Rafe Khatchadorian (Griffin Gluck), the principal has confiscated his sketchbook and dropped it in a vat of acid. “Creativity has no place in this school,” the principal tells Rafe. Other rules include no loitering in the halls, no unnatural hair colors, no public displays of affection, and no touching the trophy case.

I’d like to think that Principal Dwight is so cartoonishly villainous that there is no way a real middle school administrator could be that extreme. But I don’t want to unleash a flood of email nominations from real middle school students (and former students) who might disagree.

Ms. Stricker (Retta) is the principal’s sidekick, helping him enforce the rules and prepare for the big state achievement test that will be administered in a few weeks.

In his homeroom class, Rafe has to deal with Miller (Jacob Hopkins), the bully who has all kinds of fun with Rafe’s lengthy last name. At least the teacher, Mr. Teller (Adam Pally) seems to be an oasis of cool and reasonableness. He will deliver an applause-giving condemnation of too much focus on standardized testing.

And what school movie would be complete without a key role for the custodian, in this case Gus (Efren Ramirez), who astute viewers will recognize as Pedro from another school movie, “Napoleon Dynamite.”

Rafe faces challenges in his home life as well. His sweet, single mother, Jules (Lauren Graham), is a sous chef who is being courted by a cartoonishly villainous boyfriend, whom Rafe calls Bear (Rob Riggle). After Bear proposes to Jules and moves into the family’s house, he begins researching ways to send Rafe off to military school.

Rafe also has his bold little sister, Georgia (Alexa Nisenson), and his best friend and partner in crime, Leo (Thomas Barbusca).

But most importantly Rafe can retreat into the world of his sketchbook (he gets a replacement for the confiscated one), where he creates characters that help him cope with the world. The book series is replete with Rafe’s drawings, and the movie showcases them with inventive animation.

To battle Principal Dwight, Rafe sets in place his plan, “Rules Aren’t for Everyone.” (RAFE, get it?) Egged on by Leo, Rafe seeks to break every school rule as creatively as possible. This includes covering the school walls in sticky notes, turning the trophy case into an aquarium, and giving Principal Dwight a new hairdo.

These sight gags drew lots of laughs from a special screening whose audience included lots of middle school students and their parents. There is also some wordplay and other jokes aimed at adults but over the heads of younger viewers. But overall the comedy felt a bit flat.

And, as readers of the Patterson book series will know, the story takes a somber if poignant turn involving a member of Rafe’s family, and that is a bit of a downer in a movie promoted as a laugh riot.

This book series has sometimes been compared to the “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” works, which have turned into a successful stable of movies. The “Middle School” series has six more books published and two more on the way by Patterson and various co-authors. Gluck, the 16-year-old (but younger looking) actor playing Rafe, may only be good for another film or two as a plausible middle schooler. But the light-hearted torment of middle school principals inspired by the series may only be in its infancy.

So, principals, you might want to lock your trophy cases and buy up all the sticky notes at your neighborhood office supply stores to keep them out of the hands of your students.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Education and the Media blog.