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Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life

(2016) * 1/2 Pg
92 min. CBS Films. Director: Steve Carr. Cast: Griffin Gluck, Lauren Graham, Alexa Nisenson, Andy Daly, Rob Riggle, Adam Pally, Retta.


You can say this much for the kid-stuff comedy Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life: it shows good taste in casting. Apart from the likeable quartet of juvenile players at the film's center, Middle School casts the ever-hilarious Andy Daly beloved Gilmore Girl Lauren Graham, and sitcom stalwart Retta in key roles. Without them, Middle School would be a lot harder to take. With them, it may be possible for parents to sit through the movie without falling asleep.

Some discriminating kids might have a hard time with Middle School as well, given its decidedly mixed messages about how to deal with adult authority figures. Here is the story of one Rafe Khatchadorian (Griffin Gluck of Why Him?), whose setbacks in life have caused him to act out and be kicked out of multiple middle schools. Dropped off at Hills Village Middle School by his mother (Graham) and alongside his precocious little sister Georgia (Alexa Nisenson), talented artist Rafe immediately runs afoul of Principal Dwight (Daly) and his assistant principal (Retta of Parks and Recreation), who are sticklers for an overbearing rulebook and zealots for the standardized test known as the B.L.A.A.R. (Baseline Assessment of Academic Readiness). There's also an offbeat love interest (Isabela Moner) and one "cool teacher" (Adam Pally), to provide Rafe a positive male role model and serve as an adult rival to Dwight.

Based on James Patterson's bestselling book series (and "blessed" by an awkward Patterson cameo), Middle School actually plays like The Simpsons in its balance tipped from heart heavily toward exaggeratedly unreal scenarios. Though a bit smarter and more talented, Rafe is essentially a live-action Bart Simpson, a prankster who determines to break all of Dwight's rules. But look at him from a slightly different angle and, as with Bart, one can see Rafe's home troubles as the source of his bad behavior. Adding another area of tension to the story, albeit a cliched one, is Carl (Rob Riggle), a mean-spirited meathead who intends to wed Rafe and Georgia's mother. He, too, will become the subject of pranks by the kids, who intend to make Mom see him for the monster he is just as Rafe hopes to empower his school to buck the system through his "Operation R.A.F.E." (Rules Aren't For Everyone). Unfortunately, what the entirely pandering film has to say about teaching techniques and academic success comes out muddled and likely will read to kids simply as school sucks, and adults don't know what they're doing.

On the whole, Middle School is very silly and rarely believable in any of its particulars, beginning with the fact that a hip, well-dressed, articulate kid with a fashionable haircut who wears his wit on his sleeve would be unpopular with his peers. That Middle School is a live-action cartoon erodes its insistence on also attempting dramatic notes when it's revealed why Rafe has been having such a hard time emotionally. Much of the blame has to rest with director Steve Carr (Paul Blart: Mall Cop), who could have easily pushed back against a lazy screenplay and studio notes to make Middle School something special. Instead Carr makes his own lazy decisions, like allowing Efren Ramirez to do his Latino Stepin Fetchit routine as the school janitor. That choice, among others, gives Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life an uncomfortable aftertaste of white privilege. Andy Daly, though? Really funny.

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Aspect ratios: 2.40:1

Number of discs: 2

Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1

Street date: 1/3/2017

Distributor: Lionsgate

Lionsgate/CBS Films goes to Middle School with a Blu-ray + DVD + Digital HD special edition that gets the job done with style. A/V specs are excellent, with a bright, tight hi-def transfer that retains a natural, unboosted look while still providing well-lit, sunny, colorful imagery (especially when the film bursts into brief animated sequences). The lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix does a nice job of providing immersive ambience, as in school hallways, without losing clear prioritization of dialogue. Music gets a full-bodied, energetic treatment as well.

A handful of bonus features give kids a look behind the scenes, beginning with the featurette "That Middle School Life" (10:57, HD). Though edited at an ADHD clip, this making-of allows the key cast members to weigh in on their characters as we glimpse plenty of B-roll footage from the set and clipa from the film.

"Middle School = The Worst / Making Movies = The Best" (5:28) weirdly has the same goal as the previous featurette, at half the length and with some repeat material.

"The Wedgie Wheel" (2:33, HD) instructs kids on the variety of wedgies.

"YOLO: Behind Operation RAFE" (6:55, HD) recaps the story's pranks.

As for me, I'm a sucker for a "Gag Reel" (5:22, HD), and it's always nice to get a selection, however small, of "Deleted Scenes" (3:21, HD).

Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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