★ ★ ★ ★
Middle schooler Rafe Khatchadorian (Griffin Gluck) is a bright kid and an exceptionally talented cartoonist, but lately, he’s been getting more support from his sketchbook than from any of the adults around him. His professional-chef mom (Lauren Graham) also values creativity, but she’s too harried to meet Rafe’s needs. His meathead stepdad-to-be (Rob Riggle) sees Rafe and his little sister Georgia (Alexa Nisenson) as obstacles to fully enjoying his sports car. Worst of all, Rafe’s compulsion to doodle has gotten him expelled. Now he’s been plunked into another school in the middle of the year, where he’s subjected to abuse from petty tyrant Principal Dwight (Andrew Daly), battle-axe Vice Principal Stricker (Retta), and the snotty little bully seated behind him in homeroom (Jacob Hopkins). His crush on smart, pretty nerd Jeanne (Isabela Moner) provides a brief flare of hope in his otherwise dismal existence, but when Principal Dwight punishes the infraction of a minor rule by destroying Rafe’s sketchbook-cum-lifeline to sanity, our boy cracks. The principal loves the all-powerful Rule Book? Fine, then Rafe and his best pal Leo (Thomas Barbusca) are going to break every rule in the book, one by one, in the most creative, colossal, magnificent way they can.
Parents who have seen this movie’s pratfall-laden trailer might be thinking: Should I pop a few Benadryl before schlepping the clamoring nose-pickers to another dreadful “family” film, so I can catnap in the theater? Or should I go straight to the hard stuff and hope an Ambien knocks me out until it’s over? Don’t bother: Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life is wonderful, a nectarous confection of anarchic wish fulfillment clothed in the trickster skin of an afterschool special. If something long buried in every adult’s heart doesn’t rouse to life when Rafe rightfully observes, “I’m learning more breaking the rules than preparing for some dumb test,” as he’s dissecting the electronic guts of the school’s intercom, then maybe it’s worth reviewing how novelist and science writer Grant Allen said it first, and best: “Never let school interfere with your education.”
The cast are absolutely terrific. Lauren Graham is just as loveable here as she was on Gilmore Girls, Rob Riggle is brilliantly funny as every kid’s nightmare of a man-child stepparent, and newcomer Alexa Nisenson has a delightfully hoarse voice and a sincere emotional range. The cherry on top of this nose-thumbing delight are the animated sequences expressing Rafe’s internal state via his drawings come to life, which were done by Pasadena’s Duncan Studio in a dry-brush, cel-animated style that recalls 101 Dalmatians in both style and quality. This fantastic hybrid of High School Musical and Over the Edge is destined to become a cult classic for Generation Z in the same way that Heathers and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off were for Generation X. Their parents might dig it, too.