Jean-Paul Sarte was fairly convinced that hell is “other people.” Close, but he left off three words: “in middle school.” Middle school, that emotionally damaging wasteland between elementary and high school, is as close to hell on earth as we get — all those raging hormones and pimples and weird hair growth and gym class (where gym teachers force everyone to participate in games with names like “suicide dodgeball”) and paralyzing self-consciousness and teachers who still expect kids to learn things AND do homework? There’s a reason no one bothers to say “enjoy these years; they’ll be gone so fast”: because it’s horse manure.
Thor Freudenthal’s “Diary of a Wimpy Kid,” adapted from Jeff Kinney’s popular journal-styled series, parlays this less-than-kind reality into a believably awkward and light journey through middle school. (Best to leave it to Todd Solondz or perhaps Tim Burton to tackle the dark, scarring side of those pesky middle years.) Central to the film’s success as a comedy — aside, of course, from a cringe-inducing, signed-with-a-booger note and a Penicillin-sprouting slice of Swiss that marks those who touch it — is Zachary Gordon as Greg Heffley, already in full command of the cocksure yet still-forming confidence that warmed me to Thomas Ian Nicholas in 1993’s “Rookie of the Year.” Gordon is the hero of this story, and he is exactly as we expect him to be: precocious, hyper-articulate, both aware of his shortcomings and unaware that he lacks the smoothness to overcome them. When he enters middle school with his best friend, the hopelessly clueless Rowley (Robert Capron), he believes this to be a temporary home filled with mental midgets who tower over him and have to shave every day. He’s not too worried, though, because he’s crafted a plan to shoot his popularity star high.
The theme of his sentence (an accurate comparison, no?) rapidly becomes “nothing turns out the way we plan.” Greg’s brother (Devon Bostick) delights in tormenting him, while his mother (Rachael Harris, toning down her “Hangover” potty mouth for the kidlets) and father (Steve Zahn, indespensible as always) have little time to give Greg’s anguish much thought. Other obstacles stand in his way, including arch-nemesis Patty Ferrell (Laine MacNeil), that carping overachiever whose mother “is on the School Board), Rowley, who means well but still believes it’s OK to wear Halloween costumes his mom picks out, and Fregley (Grayson Russell), best described as 2010’s shorter, weirder answer to McLovin and who possesses the unwavering, unflappable confidence of someone thoroughly out of touch with reality. He’d do well to put a deodorizer in that locker, as he’ll be spending the equivalent of days in there by the time freshman year rolls around.
Freudenthal puts a lot of faith in Gordon and Capron, both relative newcomers, relying on them to provide the friendship that forms the epicenter of “Diary of a Wimpy Kid.” It’s a risk that pays off. Friendships like this are nature’s system of checks and balances throughout middle school. They also make survival possible, and Gordon and Capron generate camaraderie that feels authentic and sometimes awkward. Neither knows who he is, and so struggles are unavoidable. But sandbox brotherhood doesn’t die (at least not until high school, when girls pop on the radar screen), and this leads to the 11th-hour “I’ll Stand By You” that must happen. Remember: “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” is middle school-lite, not “Welcome to the Dollhouse” for the tween set. Characters like Angie (Chloe Moretz, whose lot in life until she grows breasts is to be cast as Confucius in a 12-year-old body) and the seriously oddball Fregley make the film feel fresh, even though there’s nothing especially revolutionary or hard-hitting to be found.
On second thought, maybe that’s just right. Middle school is the same for everyone and it is different. And if “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” paints over the ugly parts of early adolescence, captures a difficult time with more humor and less drama than we remember, maybe that’s just what we need.
Filed under: New Stuff, Reviews Tagged: | Chloe Moretz, Connor Fielding, Devon Bostick, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Grayson Russell, Jeff Kinney, Karan Brar, Laine MacNeil, Owen Fielding, Rachael Harris, Robert Capron, Steve Zahn, Thor Freudenthal, Zachary Gordon