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Movie Review

Rafe Khatchadorian is a middle schooler who loves to draw. Cartoons, spaceships, aliens, doodles—you name it. In fact, it's the main way Rafe's coped with the death of his brother a year before.

That's his strength. But it's also his weakness.

Rafe's not interested in much more than drawing, and getting lost in his created, imaginative worlds. Oh, Rafe's smart, mind you. But not school smart, as they say. At least, not recently: He's been kicked out of two schools already this year.

Rafe's longsuffering single mom, Jules, is doing her best. Her husband bolted when their son died. Now, she's just trying to hold it together, working multiple shifts as a sous chef while parenting Rafe and his younger sister, Georgia. And when she can't pick the kids up from their new middle school, she leans on her smooth-talking beau, Carl, to do it for her.

Ah, middle school.

It's a challenging season for many students even under the best of circumstances. But the sixth, seventh and eighth graders sentenced to—er, I mean attending Hills Valley Middle School have an even greater share of adolescent suffering to shoulder. That comes courtesy of Principal Ken Dwight and his right-hand enforcer, Vice Principal Ida Stricker.

Principal Dwight cares about exactly two things: his encyclopedic list of rules and prodding his students into acing the annual B.L.A.A.R. (BaseLine Assessment of Academic Readiness) standardized tests. And ace it they always have.

Rafe, though, he's not really a rules guy. Or a standardized test guy. He's just trying to make it through, draw some doodles and keep a low profile.

And so he might have, were it not for his mischievous best bud Leo. He's more oppositionally defiant than Rafe. So when Principal Dwight confiscates Rafe's beloved journal full of sketches and throws it in a bucket of acid, well, Leo's not having it. Instead, he incites Rafe to "shred the rules," to join him in becoming "vigilantes for freedom."

They're not going to let Dwight's legalism "suck the life out of our childhoods," he intones. "It is up to us to speak for the voiceless, to stop the suck. Let's show them we don't give a—," he proclaims before interrupting himself: "What rhymes with suck?"

"Nothing good," Rafe responds.

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Positive Elements

Jules Khatchadorian is trying to do what's best for her troubled son. She loves him, she wants him to succeed, and she values the artwork he creates. And while Rafe and Georgia have their moments, they're mostly there for each other. Georgia becomes increasingly concerned that her big brother isn't coping with the loss of their brother very well.

[Spoiler Warning] And, actually, Rafe's not doing very well. It turns out that Leo isn't real. But he's not quite imaginary, either. Instead, Leo is Rafe's longed-for projection of his deceased brother. By the end of the film, we realize that Rafe's never really processed Leo's death, something that's supposed to make us feel more sympathetic to the vandalism Rafe uncorks on Principal Dwight.

Speaking of Dwight, the principal is a mean, selfish and hypocritical man, and those character weaknesses are well and truly exposed. Mixed into this jumbled narrative is also a strong anti-bullying message, with the principal ultimately being painted as nothing more than an administrative thug.

His antithesis is Rafe's homeroom teacher, Mr. Teller, who engages with his students and who's more interested in coming up with creative ways to help them learn than he is making sure they have covered everything on the B.L.A.A.R. He nurtures their creative, artistic impulses where the principal stifles them. Mr. Teller defends his students and challenges them when Principal Dwight tries to frame his entire class for the mischief that Rafe and Leo have wrought. He's even willing to put his job on the line to stand up to his bullying boss.

Joining Rafe and Leo in their struggle against this "oppression" is a young social justice warrior named Jeanne Galleta, who plays a key role in uncovering Principal Dwight's greedy, narcissistic hypocrisy. She (mis)quotes Gandhi as having said, "Be the change you want to see."

Spiritual Content

Science fiction-tinged references are made to a reunion between Rafe and his deceased brother in the afterlife. We see a sign that reads, "BLAARMAGEDDON." A student welcomes Rafe to the school by saying, "Welcome to hell." A bumper sticker in someone's locker reads, "Psychic Migrations."

Sexual Content

Rafe and Leo reminisce over the drawings that were in the notebook Principal Dwight destroyed. "Expertly drawn boobs," Leo quips. "Those were realistic, I think," Rafe adds. "I hope," Leo finishes.

Jules' boyfriend, Carl, eventually pops the question and moves in with her (but they never tie the knot). But he's got a wandering eye, hitting shamelessly on a waitress. Throughout the film, there are animated cutscenes in which Rafe drifts into his own cartoony fantasy world. In one of these, he imagines Carl as a bear (with pants that don't quite cover his backside completely) chasing that waitress and suggestively telling her, "I just want to get some honey, honey." Jules eventually realizes she's been duped.

A student says, "My mom is really hot." Principal Dwight agrees. There's a rumor that Principal Dwight's got three nipples, but he dispels it by saying he actually doesn't have any at all.

Rafe and Jeanne kiss once. Rafe's mother wears a cleavage-revealing top. Carl kisses her hand. It's perhaps implied that Ida Stricker has a crush on Dwight, and she shampoos and massages his hair suggestively to remove the colored dye Rafe and Leo put in it. Mr. Teller counsels a student about how to break up with his girlfriend.

Violent Content

A bully named Miller menaces Rafe, threating to kick him, kicking his desk and knocking his notebook out of his hands.

Cartoony cutscenes include fantastic characters inflicting damage on each other, such as a two-headed alien blowing both heads off with a laser (they grow back), characters sliding out of Rafe's notebook into the acid bucket to "die," and a wild chase scene. An animated version of Miller explodes. Maggots feast on his remains, with one exclaiming, "Oh, try the butt cheek." Another such scene pictures shambling zombies.

Stricker falls when she's thrown off balance by an avalanche of colored plastic balls. Georgia tells her brother, "Snitches get stiches." While driving (more on that below), she also intentionally sideswipe's Carl's car against a barrier. Carl tries and fails to break a door down.

Crude or Profane Language

Leo ponders (but doesn't speak) what (obvious) word rhymes with "suck." Carl threatens, oddly, to "F your eye." Someone says, "sh—," suggesting but not fully pronouncing that s-word. Georgia tells her brother, "Pull your head out of your keister." Principal Dwight says of Rafe, "I'm tired of that guy busting my balls."

God's name is misused five times. We hear "p-ssed" once. The word "sucks" is used at least five times, and "butt wipe" (as an insult) four times (more on that below). Other exclamations include: "jeez," "gosh," "crap," "crapstorm" and "snotty." Name-calling insults include "jerk" and "stupid."

Drug and Alcohol Content

Carl and Jules drink wine at a restaurant. Mr. Teller mentions rapper Drake's pseudonym "Champagne Papi."

Rafe tattles to his mother about Georgia drinking espresso, which she's not supposed to do. "Narc," she accuses. "Addict," Rafe fires back.

Other Negative Elements

Rafe repeatedly sneaks out his window at night and heads to school, vandalizing it and setting up traps for the administrators. Some of his and Leo's pranks are messy but innocuous, such as covering the school with colored paper of various designs and messages (including an acronym for Rafe's name: "Rules Aren't For Everyone"). They can be predictably adolescent, such as rigging the school bell to make a flatulence sound. Other pranks, however, do more damage. A trophy case is turned into a giant fish bowl. Rafe and Leo cover a portion of the school's exterior in graffiti. They repeatedly put gooey neon dye in Principal Dwight's hat, with predictable results.

At Leo's prompting, Rafe steals Carl's credit card number and uses it to purchase supplies for their vandalism. One idea that's not acted upon is Leo's suggestion, "Let's pee in [Principal Dwight's] cologne."

Jeanne uploads info on what's happening at the school to Facebook, which she says is generating lots of likes and kids imitating Rafe's rebellion in their schools. She tells Rafe that she loves it that "someone has the guts to take on the establishment."

Elsewhere, Georgia—who's perhaps 8 or 9—repeatedly drives cars (though her mother rebukes her for doing so). Together, she and Rafe steal Carl's BMW. Georgia also gets disgusted with Carl and calls him a "butt wipe," leading to a conversation that involves more uses of that word and ends with Georgia wiping her dog's backside with a towel and throwing it in Carl's car. When Carl later accuses the dog of urinating on his sport coat, Georgia says that it did—then gleefully adds, "I did it too."

Carl schemes to ship Rafe off to military boarding school. Principal Dwight is willing to expel an entire class of underperforming students in order to help his school's overall achievement on the B.L.A.A.R. test. We learn he gets paid a financial bonus for good scores, and that he's driven by greed.

Mr. Keller cares about his students, but he also relates to them via inappropriate pop culture examples, such as namechecking rappers Drake, Future and the Wu-Tang Clan. He expresses his own defiance of Principal Dwight's rules by essentially telling the kids they don't apply in his classroom. "I don't see any Principal Dwight in here," he says. Before turning on a video message from the principal, Mr. Keller says, "Time for our daily dose of propaganda." There's also a reference to kids playing the M-rated video game Call of Duty.

Dwight suggests the B.L.A.A.R. should be more important to students than their family (and was, apparently, more important to him than his wife). The principal also tries to cut a deal with Rafe, letting him off the hook for his vandalism in exchange for blaming his whole class instead (but Rafe doesn't bite).

We hear many gags about all things scatological, including butts, flatulence, poop and wedgies. Regarding the latter, Miller threatens Rafe, "I'll wedgie you so bad you'll be able to taste your underwear." Dwight tells the janitor, Gus, "Would you fix that farting bell. I want my ding dong back." The principal eventually ends up covered in excrement. There's a joke about Uranus. Leo jokes about not wanting to give Rafe mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.

Conclusion

Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life offers some sweet, momentary reflections on the pain of losing someone and the importance of family in working through grief.

But I do mean momentary.

The balance of this middle school fever-dream finds Rafe and Leo doing their best to stick it to the Man. (They even use that very phrase at one point.) It's as if they binge-watched Ferris Beuller's Day Off, Home Alone and maybe even Animal House over a long weekend, then decided to unleash similar assaults on the film's two bumbling, old-school stereotypes, all in the name of being "vigilantes" for "freedom" … with plenty of butt, excrement and flatulence jokes delivered along the way.

On the most basic level, this is the kind of movie that will have conscientious parents face-palming and shaking their heads. After all, how many parents really want their kids latching on to insults like "butt wipe" or "crapstorm," or going home and Googling Game of Thrones if somehow they've never heard of it, or—more problematically—entertaining the idea of sneaking out at night.

On a deeper level, the entire construct of this story—creativity vs. rules—is a false dichotomy. Over and over again, we're told that artistic expression and healthy individuality are at odds with rules and limits. And the story's response to those limits is to "shred" them, as Leo says.

Even in a silly, annoying little movie like this one, it's not a helpful or healthy thing to tell kids that the best response to rules is to break them.

Pro-social Content

Objectionable Content

Summary Advisory

Plot Summary

Christian Beliefs

Other Belief Systems

Authority Roles

Profanity/Violence

Kissing/Sex/Homosexuality

Discussion Topics

Additional Comments/Notes

Episode Reviews

Content Caution

Kids
Teens
Adults

Credits

Rating

PG

Readability Age Range

Author

Cast

Griffin Gluck as Rafe Khatchadorian; Lauren Graham as Jules Khatchadorian; Alexa Nisenson as Georgia Khatchadorian; Thomas Barbusca as Leo; Isabela Moner as Jeanne; Andrew Daly as Principal Ken Dwight; Retta as Vice Principal Ida Stricker; Adam Pally as Mr. Teller; Jacob Hopkins as Miller; Efren Ramirez as Gus

Distributor

Lionsgate, CBS Films

Network

Performance

Record Label

Platform

Publisher

In Theaters

October 7, 2016

On Video

Year Published

Awards

Reviewer

Adam R. Holz

We hope this review was both interesting and useful. Please share it with family and friends who would benefit from it as well.

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