Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life

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As preteen fare goes, “Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life” is better than its bland, glib title, with some heart and soul beneath its pour-paint-on-the-principal shenanigans. Amid the cliches, it manages a neat trick or two.

Rafe (Griffin Gluck), a budding artist with a wandering mind, transfers to a school run by anti-art Principal Dwight (Andy Daly), a clueless doofus from the Steve Carell catalog. When Dwight destroys Rafe’s sketchbook — dips it in a bucket of acid, Judge Doom-style, then says, “It’s probably a bad idea to keep a bucket of acid in a middle school, but if you can think of a better way to dissolve notebooks, I’m all ears” — Rafe, abetted by his bad-influence friend Leo (Thomas Barbusca), aims to sow rebellion among students through pranks: trophy case turned into aquarium, school bell embellished with fart noise, that sort of thing.

At home, Rafe and his sassy little sister (Alexa Nisenson) cope with the competitive man-child (Rob Riggle) that their mother (Lauren Graham) has been dating. The kids’ father isn’t mentioned, but we know they lost a brother not long ago. It’s implied that this is the cause of Rafe’s bad behavior — he’s been kicked out of other schools — but he never comes across as a delinquent. That there’s ultimately a tender side to the mildly satiric farce helps Rafe’s hijinks not seem too bratty (though parents still might want to emphasize to young viewers that such deeds are not to be duplicated).

It’s based on a series of books, with a screenplay by Chris Bowman, Hubbel Palmer, and Kara Holden, and direction by Steve Carr (“Paul Blart: Mall Cop”). The plot is resolved too tidily (deus ex surveillance tapes), but the kids are sweet, and the adults — also including Adam Pally as Rafe’s think-outside-the-box homeroom teacher — are occasionally funny in a way that suggests the writers were trying to amuse themselves while adapting a children’s property. More power to ’em.

B- (1 hr., 32 min.; PG, some rude humor and bad behavior.)