Middle school is, for many, an uncommonly rotten time—three or four years of foul body odor, social alienation, and volcanic hormonal eruptions. It’s a time of free-floating pubescent despair and violent, unruly emotions aching to break free of the stultifying regimentation of the school bell.
So who can blame Rafe Khatchadorian (Griffin Gluck), the rebellious hero of Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life, for replacing that school bell with a fart machine? Or for plastering his school’s hallways in colored Post-it notes? Or for dumping bright pink goop on his principal’s head? He’s fighting the good fight against his school’s rigid code of conduct, enforced with an iron fist by rule-mad Principal Dwight (Andy Daly). After Dwight destroys Rafe’s beloved sketchbook in retaliation for a less-than-flattering caricature of the principal, Rafe sets out to surreptitiously break every rule in the school handbook.
Based on the 2011 novel of the same name by James Patterson and Chris Tebbetts, The Worst Years of My Life doesn’t capture much of the emotional turmoil of being a tween, but it does offer a fitfully amusing and lightly subversive attack on the conformism of the American school system, particularly targeting the soul-sucking tedium of standardized testing. Dwight’s obsession with ensuring high scores on an assessment test has turned him into a quasi-dictator, stamping out all signs of dissent, creativity, or individual thought among the student body. Rafe’s series of rule-breaking pranks escalates into an insurrection against the mechanization of education.
For a film extolling the virtues of thinking outside the box, however, The Worst Years of My Life is a pretty by-the-numbers affair, hitting all the familiar school-movie highlights: the bully, the crush, the goofy best friend, the stuffed-shirt principal, the one teacher who sees a kid’s true potential. Unimaginatively directed and indifferently shot, the film never establishes a distinctive voice for itself, instead leaning on some bouncy musical cues, wacky foley effects, and “hip” references to keep up the momentum, such as a lecture based around a strange analogy involving Drake and Future to explain, of all things, NAFTA. Even the film’s animated asides, intended as visualizations of Rafe’s restless creativity, feel merely perfunctory.
While the film is rarely clever enough to elicit any real laughs, its good-natured irreverence and cast of comic ringers—including Daly, Retta, Rob Riggle, Adam Pally, and Lauren Graham, all having fun with their cartoonish roles—manages to keep things winsomely breezy. Daly in particular strikes an amusing balance between despotic ruthlessness and blithe dorkiness that rescues his character from the screeching buffoon it easily could have been.
Unfortunately, a maudlin plot strand involving Rafe’s younger brother who died of cancer, which then caused his father to leave the family, disrupts the film’s light-hearted tone, unnecessarily attempting to wring tears out of a story that basically amounts to Dirty Work Jr. It also has the effect of over-psychologizing Rafe and robbing his story of its subversive charm by explaining his rebellion as a product of grief rather than a just response to a repressive education system. We don’t need overwritten tragedies to explain why a kid might fight back against the powers that be; we just need to remember what it was like to be in middle school.