By Felicia Feaster
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.
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.
The hero of this tale, Greg Heffley (Zachary Gordon), is a self-centered but affable kid who is gimlet-eyed when it comes to the pecking order of middle school. 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.
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.
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 proudest claims 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.
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.”
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, 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, best buddies prevail and the road to high school is paved with comic gold.
Diary of a Wimpy Kid
Directed by Thor Freudenthal
With Zachary Gordon, Robert Capron, Rachael Harris, Steve Zahn, Laine MacNeil and Grayson Russell
Dreamcatcher, Regal Stadium 14