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How to Eat Fried Worms

(2006) *** Pg
98 min. New Line Cinema. Director: Bob Dolman. Cast: Luke Benward, Hallie Kate Eisenberg, Adam Hicks, Austin Rogers, Kimberly Williams-Paisley.

The line between adult and child entertainment has been irrevocably blurred at the movies, in an era of comic-book adventure and hip CGI animation. So an honest-to-God kid's movie—and a good one, no less—comes as quite a surprise. How to Eat Fried Worms, adapted from Thomas Rockwell's perennially popular children's book, serves up a sweet-natured and reasonably authentic platter of kid culture.

Writer-director Bob Dolman takes liberties with Rockwell's story structure, but his choices are valid. Dolman softens Rockwell's war metaphor to a more conventional bullying conflict, but the story retains a few gentle lessons in surviving adolescence. Luke Benward plays Billy, a new kid in town who agonizes over the bout of hazing he must endure at school. After trading insults with Joe (Adam Hicks), the school's dominant personality, Billy must save face by agreeing to a bet. Joe contends Billy can't eat 10 worms in one day—loser walks the school corridor with a crotchful of wrigglers.

As in real life, logic takes a holiday as the wager takes on the outsized significance of a schoolyard brawl. The story convincingly dramatizes how friends are made, as the boys around Billy betray their fascination in his daring task and begin to admire his guts (literally). The child ensemble's lack of polish ends up working in the film's favor, as the young actors depict like-minded kids' easy rapport with amusing idiosyncrasy and no false emphasis. Naturally, Billy's ascension coincides with Joe's diminution, but Dolman handles this, too, with more empathy than most films.

Also on the scene are Billy's mom (Kimberly Williams-Paisley) and dad (Thomas Cavanaugh), who endures a parallel and equally silly socialization crisis at work. Billy's younger brother (Ty Panitz) irritates Billy but endears himself to the audience with his uninhibited patter. And, yup, that's the Hallie Kate Eisenberg (those creepy old Pepsi ads)—as Erika, Billy's no-nonsense tomboy crush. (Andrea Martin and James Rebhorn man the schoolhouse.)

"Boys are so weird," Erika sighs, and How to Eat Fried Worms may only appeal to one gender, and a limited age-range at that. But tween boys will no doubt enjoy the way this story inverts the "spoonful of sugar" paradigm. Here, the sweet messages are delivered with pucker-faced gross-outs: worms fried, blended, and microwaved into globs. And what will kids learn, aside from how to win friends and influence people? Don't be so afraid to try something new: what doesn't kill you makes you stronger.

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