As Francois Truffaut sagely noted, adolescence leaves pleasant memories only for adults who cannot remember. So it’s entirely possible that even the folks who made “Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life” will be pleasantly surprised by the cross-generational appeal of their spirited comedy about a sixth-grader’s antiauthoritarian campaign of rule-breaking mischief. To be sure, every generation is entitled to its own revenge fantasy, and this particular wishdream — inspired by the series-spawning novel by James Patterson and Chris Tebbets — is aimed primarily at viewers who might not yet have a firm grasp on puberty. But “Middle School” also may resonate with older viewers who most certainly do remember adolescent angst.
Rafe Khatchadorian (Griffin Gluck), the protagonist of the piece, is a semi-introverted but fancifully imaginative youngster who, for reasons left teasingly unclear, already has been kicked out of two schools before his single mom (Lauren Graham) enrolls him at Hills Village Middle School, an institution operated as a personal fiefdom by the smugly dictatorial Principal Dwight (Andy Daly). Rafe would prefer to lie low, make no waves, and channel his rebellious spirit into drawing sci-fi figures, comic-book characters and satirical caricatures in his sketchbook. Unfortunately, Principal Dwight confiscates Rafe’s sketchbook and, even more unfortunately, fails to see the humor in Rafe’s mocking sketch of him. So he summarily destroys Rafe’s magnum opus.
Of course, you know this means war.
Director Steve Carr (“Paul Blart: Mall Cop”) periodically amps the fantasy quotient in the movie’s wish fulfillment by allowing Rafe to converse and interact with cleverly animated versions of his doodles. For the most part, however, he keeps the free-wheeling, crowd-pleasing zaniness grounded in something like reality, or a candy-colored facsimile thereof, as Rafe — aided by his like-minded buddy Leo (Thomas Barbusca) — plot and execute a series of elaborate practical jokes aimed at smashing every restrictive rule in Principal Dwight’s rulebook.
As the guerilla campaign escalates from papering hallways with Post-It notes to transforming a trophy case into an aquarium, Principal Rafe and his second-in-command, vice-principal Ida Stricker (Retta), are increasing outraged by what they see as a subversive crusade for nonconformity. More important, they worry whether other students will be infused with a spirit of revolution, and fail to do well on standardized tests that indicate the academic status of a school (and, more important, significantly enhance a principal’s career).
Meanwhile, back on the home front, Rafe and Georgia (Alexa Nisenson), his precocious younger sister, must cope with a different sort of threat: Bear (Rob Riggle), their mother’s boorish boob of a boyfriend, who’s a childish bully when mom isn’t around — and quite willing to ship Rafe off to military school. Riggle plays his role with the same degree of amusingly cartoonish exaggeration evinced by most other actors cast as authoritarian figures in “Middle School.” (A conspicuous exception to that generalization: Adam Pally as the casually hip Mr. Teller, the only sympathetic teacher at Hills Village Middle School.) Still, it’s mildly distressing to consider how this character might come across to any young viewer coping with an abusive step-parent in real life.
“Middle School” hits most of the predictable plot points and includes many of the archetypal characters common to this sort of youth-skewing entertainment, including the helpful brainy girl (Isabela Mona) and the hectoring bully (Jacob Hopkins). On the other hand, the movie is unexpectedly affecting when it suggests a tragic “explanation” for Rafe’s misbehavior, then springs a mildly jolting third-act reveal. Don’t misunderstand: None of that diminishes the overall tone of light and bright tomfoolery. But the fleeting counterbalance of seriousness makes the funny business marginally yet appreciably funnier.
The performances across the board are everything they should be, with special credit due Gluck and Daly as well-matched opponents. And Efren Ramirez (yes, Pedro from “Napoleon Dynamite”) deserves a kudo or two for his brief but attention-grabbing turn as Gus, the Hills Village Middle School janitor, who gets the movie’s funniest line. Surveying the wall-to-wall Post-It notes display, he admiringly opines: “Whoever did this was committed to his art.”