“Who wants to see a movie about a kid who’s stuck in middle school with a bunch of morons?”
So good does this movie start that before that line above was even uttered (by the narrator/hero Greg, no less), I’d actually forgotten the only reason I did want to see such a movie…
I’m not familiar with the book source but it’s evident from the Peanuts-style music and quirky line drawings the tone and style they’re going for. A breakfast scene where Greg’s little brother sits simultaneously peeing in the potty while munching toast points up even further that this isn’t your average middle school movie (is there even an “average middle school movie”? I don’t know lol). In fact it’s at this early stage that I began to panic that this was actually one of those great movies about kids that gets rated such that kids can’t actually see it. Less than 20 minutes later Greg actually pees all over his older brother, so it’s certainly not shy about exploiting the typical funny buttons of its target audience. I’m assured by the IMDb that it’s “suitable for kids” everywhere it’s being shown, which is a relief.
From here we’re thrust immediately into a “shirts and skins” sports class scenario that could have been ripped directly from my own childhood. It’s at this nightmare class that Greg and his less cool friends encounter Chloe Moretz – that sole reason I originally wanted to see this movie at the start – sitting peacefully reading under the bleachers. In a scene I’d be routing for as Moretz’ Oscar clip if we didn’t already have Kick-Ass and the upcoming Let Me In to work from, she outlines pretty much the whole moral of the movie… which Greg promptly ignores.
“This place is an intellectual wasteland,” she begins, and literally lays out on a platter to Greg the secret to surviving middle school. She’s a girl we could all have used as our guide in school. But like most of us at that age, he won’t be told, and must find out for himself.
Greg’s a flawed character who’s likely to simply annoy viewers who don’t see the reason why such a hero is the best place to view such a story from. His attitude from the outset is summed up by an early line: “Thank god there are few normal people, or this place would be like a freak show.” He literally thinks himself too cool for school, which might be true but isn’t going to help him survive it. He gets jealous of his chubby friend Rowley because while he misdirects his energy and fails, Rowley seems to obtain success after success – first winning rank in the school’s hall monitor program, and then by penning a winning comic strip for the school newspaper (one of the few areas where Greg seems to have real ambition) almost effortlessly.
Cool comes from unexpected places, the movie constantly asserts. Rowley continues to score cool points by doing things that in Greg’s mind are the most uncool things around: doing a choreographed dance at a mother-son dance, for example – while Greg constantly tries to anticipate cool-dom… “if I do this one thing I think is cool, then I’ll be cool…” etc. Even when he finally gets this, and delivers almost the same monologue as Moretz gave him at the start, he kinda thinks he’s going to win over the school. It’s only when they respond like the mindless mass they are that he realises where he belongs. Moretz again shoots off the movie’s message in a nutshell to the school’s resident prissy princess…
“One day middle school will end and become highschool, and after that it just becomes life and all those things you think are important now… won’t be anymore.”
It’s all been done before, of course, most recently I think in Mean Girls … but it’s always worth refreshing, and in this case in particular, it’s interesting that the children are not only younger, but male.
Something occurred to me when I first watched this movie and I found myself thinking about it even more as I watched a second time for this review. We’re at a point where Disney has felt the need to retitle its next Animated Classic “Rapunzel” as Tangled because The Princess and the Frog didn’t appeal to boys. It’s 7 years since School of Rock and Bad Santa (one of those I mentioned earlier that couldn’t officially be seen by kids) presented kids of the male persuasion as truly autonomous beings – seriously, outside Harry Potter where the kids just keep getting older, I can’t think of any movie in the interim that really fits the bill. It’s not something I’d normally think about but a movie like this comes along and I can’t help but be shocked. While male actors clearly still dominate as leads in “grownups” cinema, there seems to me to be an even harsher imbalance when it comes to young boy vs young girl characters, so for me this movie deserves immediate props for not only putting boys front and center but also just slightly messing with gender stereotypes in its own way.
These aren’t cool kids (and how many of us ever were?), nor are they likely to even grow into shining examples of stereotypical manhood. When Greg finally finds out he’s actually good at something – singing – it turns out his voice is too high for any role in the school play (The Wizard of Oz) except the lead, Dorothy. The school’s diva naturally objects immediately, but not because he’s a boy: because of his prior misdeeds. It’s little things like this that set the film apart from anything in recent memory. The movie simply makes it look cool to be yourself and just a waste of time to be anything otherwise – from Chloe Moretz’ monologue at the top on down.
In short it’s a great movie with a great message for young boys in particular; but it’s a message just as likely to be appreciated by all children worried about or struggling with “big school”, and even those of us decades out of the awful place too. The last word goes to Moretz, who had already wowed me in Kick-Ass but here quite simply blew the Fannings out of my ears and shows her ability to do natural. There’s an aura about Moretz here that recalls Jodie Foster and Tatum O’Neal in the mid-seventies. She’s super natural and steals every little scene she’s in. But like I said at the start, though I came to it specifically for her, she really only makes a great movie even better.