Middle school can be downright brutal. Puberty begins. Awkward social situations abound. There are plenty of things to worry about–bullies, popularity, P.E. teachers, older siblings, moldy cheese, etc. Maybe that’s why there aren’t too many films about junior high–we’re all trying to black those years out of our memories.
Based on Jeff Kinney’s novel, Diary of a Wimpy Kid is a look at one sixth-grader’s first full year of middle school. That sixth-grader is Greg Heffley (Zachary Gordon), the wise-cracking imaginative kid who chronicles his middle school adventures in a journal (it’s not a diary!). Greg’s best friend is Rowley (Robert Capron), the big dopey kid who is content being himself, whether or not that’s socially acceptable. Greg wants to be cool but is worried that Rowley is holding him back. Along their journey to popularity, they encounter an artsy intellectual school journalist (Chloe Moretz), the only kid shorter than Greg in the sixth grade (Karan Brar), and the uber-nerd Fregley (Grayson Russell, the “I’m gonna come at you like a spider monkey!” kid from Talladega Nights).
The film is reminiscent of another silly middle school tale, A Christmas Story. Both middle school protagonists devote their entire existence to something we adults would find childish–a Red Ryder B.B. gun, and a picture in the yearbook. Both heroes have overactive imaginations, turning ordinary events in larger-than-life adventures. Both have episodic narratives without much of a clear direction. But that’s middle school, isn’t it? You take it a day at a time, trying to find out where you belong, trying on different identities to see what fits best, all while trying to avoid complete humiliation.
Child psychologist David Elkind coined the phrase patchwork self in order to describe the tapestry-like identity that comes with adolescence. Basically, young people take portions of different identities and patch them all together, regardless of coherence. It’s a natural part of the identity formation process. Diary of a Wimpy Kid does a good job of revealing this concept in a tangible way; Greg tries on different “selves” via sports, school plays, safety patrol, and both befriending and de-friending those around him. For those interacting with early adolescents–parents, coaches, teachers, youth pastors, etc.–the film is a good reminder of their roller-coaster lifestyle.
The film also does a great job of revealing the paradox that adolescents share both child- and adult-like traits. I remember hearing at a middle school ministry seminar that early adolescence isn’t so much a phase in between childhood and adulthood as it is thetransitory overlap of childhood and adulthood. In other words, middle schoolers are both children and adults. This is how Rowley and Greg can be so confused as to why the girls think a fellow classmate’s butt is cute. “Butts aren’t cute!” Rowley exclaims. “It’s a butt.” It’s also why Rowley’s desire to “play” just isn’t considered cool any more; it’s called “hanging out” now.
Overall, the film is a lighthearted and humorous look at the middle school years, if a bit underwhelming. The parent characters (Steve Zahn and Rachael Harris) don’t offer much either in terms of laughs or parental guidance, and the humor is definitely juvenile. But for a middle school film about boyhood friendship enduring social humiliation–think Superbad-lite–it’s a pleasant little flick.
IMDB Listing: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1196141/