Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life (PG)

I went to a family pre-screening for this film and was surrounded by children who absolutely loved this movie. They laughed regularly, were completely engrossed with the story, and I’m sure there was a collective moment of quiet tear shedding in there somewhere.  The crowd cheered following the showing of Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life.  Not because the movie, popcorn and soda were free, not because we all got a chance to meet the cast and crew, but because they really liked this movie.

Author/Director/Producer James Patterson published a series of “Middle School” books from 2012 through 2014.  His latest screen adaptation, Middle School: the Worst Years of My Life is based on this series and is a pleasant departure from the crime/mysteries he is so well known for (Kiss the Girls (1997), Along Came a Spider (2001), Alex Cross (2012)).

The story centers on the life and imagination of Rafe, a kid who has already been kicked out of two schools due to his behaviors, and is at his last-chance school. This talented, imaginative, quiet teen tires quickly of his new school’s obsession with rules and formulates a plan with his best friend to find a way to eliminate every rule in the book.  Rafe is not a “bad” child.  He is misunderstood, unique and is going through an emotional time.  He is a bit of a loner who does not make friends easily and becomes a target due to his “uniqueness.”  The movie blends Rafe’s imaginary world into real life through the animated characters he draws.  Rafe is more socially engaged with these figments of his imagination, and others, than he is with the humans in his life.

This kid has a clear absence of positive male role models in his life, and is trying to navigate his way into male adulthood the best way he can. The world around him changes instantaneously at times, and usually not in a positive way.  So he takes charge of the one thing he can control – his imaginary life.  Control of his imaginary life helps him to navigate his real life and keeps him sane during rough times.  There, in his imaginary world, he feels safe and secure.  He is competent and confident.  There, he is not alone.  In Middle School, animation and fantasy are skillfully blended with the true life of a 14 year old who has been through many changes during his short middle school life.  It plays like a teen movie with an adult theme that really is not an adult theme.  But it is a theme one would pray a child would never have to experience, although many do.  It also includes sort of a mystery – which is what Mr. Patterson is known for – and here, he incorporates it brilliantly.

One message conveyed in this movie is how children and schools are not always compatible, and how that lack of compatibility can affect a child’s learning experience. Rafe was this creative artist who is put into a school with rigid rules, no arts and no freedom.  The school taught their students for standardized testing results.  This was a large part of the story that made it interesting for me.  How the administration of the school was obsessed with rules and tests, and quite unconcerned about the whole child.  Sound familiar?  Middle School touches upon a huge problem in modern-day education that many parents and students will surely relate to.

There are moments when the movie is a bit corny, but some of the corny parts are also some of the funnier parts. There are moments when it turns sappy, but due to elements of the subject matter, this is almost inevitable.  There are also moments of revelation that will surprise truly you.  These moments are really what make Middle School worth a watch.  This is a lovely family movie that provides many points of conversation for children and their guardians or parents, including school bullying by peers and adults, thinking through the consequences of one’s actions, mental health, questioning authority and rules, and so much more.

Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life comes out Friday and earned 7 out of 10 bloops. It is a good movie worth seeing and worth a watch on the big screen for the animation segments.  At the very least, when it streams, catch it.  I think your children will really enjoy it.

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