American movies appear to be regressing at an alarming rate. The cinema has long fixated on the cliques, bullies, social embarrassment, and occasional good times of high school. But stories about middle schoolers generally have been limited to Nickelodeon and Disney Channel programs. Until now.
Jeff Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid illustrated book series is an exception to our culture’s relentless trolling of high school. A graphic novel in training wheels, Diary of a Wimpy Kid suggests Ghost World or Howl for tweens — minus the nihilism. The Wimpy Kid series is an affirmation that degradation and quests for self-identity also consume those not yet able to grow facial hair or wriggle out from beneath their mama’s thumb, where the most profound embarrassment imaginable is an invitation to a mother-son dance.
The hero of this tale, Greg Heffley (played in the movie by Zachary Gordon), is a self-centered, lazy, but, ultimately, affable kid who is gimlet-eyed when it comes to the pecking order of middle school. Greg’s most endearing quality is his Charlie Brown terminal loserdom: No matter how hard he tries to move up the middle-school cool hierarchy, life keeps bitch-slapping him back into the geek ranks. The Judd Apatow creed is that every loser just needs to hang on long enough, and the babe will drop in his lap. Kinney’s take is a more pragmatic, cope-with-the-cards-you’re-dealt one.
Directed by Thor Freudenthal, Kinney’s tween books have been reconceptualized for the screen as live action. Kinney’s rudimentary, stick-figure drawings on lined notebook paper have been replaced with a cast of goofy-cute leads who recall the motley chubbies, foreign exchange students, and geeks of a larval Revenge of the Nerds. The movie is funny, endearing, and true enough to the life-is-pain spirit of the books to appease kids anxious to see their own experiences mirrored back at them and to cut through the obfuscating haze of nostalgia to remind their parents of the real, but not always pleasant, sensations of middle-school.
In occasional Precious-style fugues, Greg imagines a more glam reality than his middle school straits, including adult fame and fortune. But in real life, Greg is saddled with the usual perceived and actual handicaps. He has a lip-lickingly malicious teenage brother Rodrick (Devon Bostick), who enjoys torturing Greg when he’s not practicing in his band Löded Diper; a baby brother whose potty-training rituals include sitting on his portable toilet during dinner; and a mother whose very presence seems designed to humiliate.
Kinney’s specialty is his pitch-perfect recall for the peculiar texture of middle-school purgatory and the oddball characters whose ticks he renders with real authenticity, like bad seed Patty Ferrell (Laine MacNeil), a pigtailed hellion whose parents have Title 9’d her into Greg’s wrestling club and whose proudest claim to fame are the numerous times she has beaten Greg to a pulp. Equally vivid: the freakish Fregley (Grayson Russell), a hyperactive, nose-picking pariah whose wild-eyed look suggests a perpetual sugar-rush. Who among us can’t recall comparable monstrous girl-bullies or freakish outsiders from our own middle earth?
Like a tiny, more mercenary Ben Stiller, Greg schemes about how to increase his middle-school popularity, which for him, entails downplaying his friendship with his giddy, bowl hair-cut best buddy Rowley (Robert Capron), who still clings to childhood, wears a serape to school, and humiliates Greg by loudly asking him if he’d like to come over and “play.” For Greg, Rowley represents a childhood he longs to escape from for adulthood.
The sensibility of Diary of a Wimpy Kid is like a scrubbed-down and shiny There’s Something About Mary or The 40-Year-Old Virgin. There are moments of abject humiliation, bathroom comedy, and the ingestion of rank dairy products. But, as is often the case in the foul-mouthed Apatow canon, for the most part, a core of sweetness prevails. In this age bracket, thankfully, the complicated politics of friendship are more important than wooing some preteen fox, and despite some road bumps (Greg tells Rowley his dad “smells like a woman”), best buddies prevail and the road to high school is paved with comic gold.