Monday 23 January 2017

Middle School: The Worst Years Of My Life (2017) - Movie Review

Well, after looking at the terrors of later adolescence a while back, it only serves to reason that I would follow that up with a look into the earlier years of high school (or middle school, as the Yanks call it)… and somehow, that represents an even worse point for anyone going through the traditional school system. The later years of high school still suck, but at least they have a definite tone to them; that being adjusting to the adult world and its many challenges distilled through the experience of educational imprisonment (or, at least, that’s how it feels). Years 7-9, however? It’s basically one big shift of perspective and needing to adjust to not being the hot shit anymore.

Seriously, the key reason why first year students are so insufferable is because they’re still adjusting from being king of the hill in primary school to being back at the bottom of the rung in high school. They need their egos checked and the older kids are more than willing to do so, usually through some combination of balloons, water, flour and a decent throwing arm. So, with all this in mind, how does today’s look at the hell of early high school turn out, considering it’s made by one of the architects of the abomination that is Movie 43?

The plot: Rafe (Griffin Gluck), after being kicked out of every other school in the area, has been transferred to Hills Village Middle School. The school is ruled over by Principal Dwight (Andy Daly), enforcing a lengthy book of rules to keep the students in line. Aided by his best friend Leo (Thomas Barbusca), he sets out to destroy Dwight’s regime and liberate the students… however, between Dwight’s enforcing of the rules and his mother (Lauren Graham)’s new boyfriend Carl (Rob Riggle) bringing trouble to his home life, his mission may prove difficult.

The acting here is good in that they succeed at portraying the characters they have been given; whether that’s something worth seeing is another matter entirely. Gluck is in his comfort zone a lot more here than back with Why Him?, and he pulls off the inventive kid rebel pretty well; it probably helps that he is easily the most grounded of the entire cast, save for Graham who gives a nice and warm presence to the screen. Daly is stuffy and abrasive and plays the joke of his character a bit too loud to really gel with, same with Riggle as the incredibly dickish potential step-dad. Isabella Moner as the love interest works nicely alongside Gluck, Retta as the vice principal gives some desperately needed grounding to Daly’s antics (not nearly enough of it but the effort is still appreciated), Efren Ramirez of Napoleon Dynamite fame is essentially an extended cameo to give the film some indie cred, Barbusca is a good fit as Rafe’s friend and confidant and Adam Pally as Rafe’s homeroom teacher is the only person delivering the film’s subtext with any efficiency.

However, bar none, the highlight of the film in terms of performance is Alexa Nisenson as Rafe’s younger sister. Admittedly, her core portrayal of the film’s “kids acting more like adults than the actual adults” ethos can feel stilted at times but the fact that she makes it work as well as it does is definitely a credit to her acting chops. That, and the scene where she breaks her snarky veneer and admits to Rafe about her worries is a serious punch-in-the-gut moment. Of all the reactions I was expecting to get out of this, legitimate crying wasn’t one of them but that’s just how good Nisenson is in that scene.

This film is aggressively white, and that term might sound a bit odd being written by a suburban white male but there’s really no other way to describe it. The jokes being made out of how out-of-touch the adults are, plentiful use of ebonics and faux-gangsterisms, the exaggeration of school and comparing being a student there to being a prisoner at Guantanamo Bay (in a sight gag, admittedly, but it’s still there to be noticed); this is the kind of film that only predominantly white people would make. Probably helps that the last time I saw a film about white people problems that was this out-of-step with actual teenaged life was Diary Of A Wimpy Kid: Dog Days; this isn’t quite as egregious in that regard, but it’s up there in terms of weak children’s book adaptations.

So, it’s an exaggerated account of a kid in early high school… and a pretty unlikeable one at that. Not because of the characters themselves, as the whole “kids acting like adults” angle kind of works for the story being told. Rather, it’s because everything shown here is so overblown that it’s hard to connect with, even considering it’s the harshness of school life filtered through a teenager’s understanding of the world. I get the half-hearted sentiment the film tries to make about standardized tests and how a child’s intellect and worth isn’t just a sum of their test scores, but when it’s wrapped in so much crap whose sole reason for being considered funny is the fact that it isn’t funny, text trumps subtext in the worst way possible.

It is incredibly annoying having to sit through this classroom dictatorship, and not just because the principal himself is irritating to the point of creating an itch that must be scratched with a loaded firearm. It’s also annoying because, even as someone who hated the faculty back in school, none of this feels right. If this film went for something even a touch more realistic, like a Facebook hate group for the principal where students compare him to vampires and Hitler (you know, like normal kids do), then the drama could have been made more effective and the humour actually funny. Of course, realism isn’t necessarily this film’s style.

In-between the scenes of school drudgery, we get animations of Rafe’s drawings to further push how the totalitarian school affects him. Quite honestly, these are the best parts of the film for a number of reasons. For one, they make for far more lively and engaging sequences than the majority of the live-action scenes, and it’s certainly nice to see traditional line drawing in a mainstream film again. For another, it helps to further one of the only bits of subtext that actually works here: Escapism. Specifically, the kind of escapism a student would go through in order to deal with the real world. It’s a nice angle, even if it gets into certain weird and potentially troubling areas concerning how it manifests itself in the live-action scenes.

But that ends up leading into a major question: Why wasn’t the entire film done like this? Better yet, if the film is so content with using surreality to highlight the trials of reality, why didn’t they go further with it? Making the fantastical elements real and not just in Rafe’s head, at the very least, would have given this film a real edge along with a nice selling point; hell, the drawn creations becoming real definitely scratches a thematic itch for me personally. But no, they’re just interludes for the main product, which is far from something I could conscionably recommend.

All in all, even ignoring the fact that I’ve seen far better high school drama fairly recently, this is still a pretty weak offering. The acting is good for what they’ve been given, but the characters are incredibly thin and grating on the senses, the comedy relies way too much on irony to register as anything other than annoying and while there are traces of thematic poignancy here and there, it’s basically a live-action cartoon being interrupted every so often by an actual cartoon.

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