Diary of a Wimpy Kid
What It Is
“The only reason I agreed to do this at all,” explains 11-year-old Greg (Zachary Gordon) at the beginning of Diary of a Wimpy Kid, “is because I figure later on, when I’m rich and famous, I’ll have better things to do than answer people’s stupid questions all day long. So this book is gonna come in handy.”
What he’s agreed to do is write his thoughts about his first year at middle school in this book, and as Greg describes it, the process is part therapy and part storytelling, as he works out his expectations and disappointments, his schemes and surprises. He’s lucky to have an eminently sensible mom (Rachael Harris), who sustains his self-confidence, while his father (Steve Zahn) encourages his creativity. Sure, his older brother Rodrick (Devon Bostick), a drummer in a loud band, is a bit of a bully and his baby brother can be annoying, but still, Greg is mostly okay with his home-life. It’s school that’s throwing him off.
Starting on day one, Greg assumes he’ll be popular and only has to figure out how to get known and loved. Should he join debate club or drama? Run for class president or go out for a team? As he and his loyal best friend Rowley (Robert Capron) try one activity after another, from wrestling to security patrol, they’re repeatedly judged and ostracized by the other kids, for being different. Greg redoubles his efforts to both stand out and fit in, trying to remake Rowley as a “cool” kid, then stumbling into a situation where his own lie leads to Rowley getting in trouble. On top of that dilemma, Greg’s sense of how the world works is upended when Rowley—awkward, generous, and ever agreeable—is suddenly popular in the way Greg wants to be. Now Greg has to decide on what’s most important to him: his hurt feelings, jealousy, and pride... or his best friend.
Why It’s Fun
Adapted from the first of Jeff Kinney’s popular kids-lit series, the movie features the book’s signature stick figures and cocky-wimpy kid’s perspective. The boys’ adventures range from excruciatingly routine (taunted by classmates in the cafeteria) to over-the-top (chased by truck-driving bullies on Halloween night). Greg has to figure out how his behavior has consequences: disobeying or lying to your mom is never a good idea, but lying to protect your best friend from a crowd of mean kids can make you heroic.
Gordon and Capron’s winning performances help to hold together an episodic structure. Greg and Rowley share the sorts of feelings and experiences that define best friends. Nervous when they first go to the new school, they worry about what to wear and where to sit in class, how they’re perceived by peers and how they’re stuck with the “weirdos”—namely, scrawny, nose-picking Fregley (Grayson Russell) and scrawny, accented Chirag Gupta (Karan Brar). The point being, biases are always short-sighted, but it’s difficult to understand that when you’re feeling them, or worse, being trained to see them.
Thor Freudenthal’s movie does a good job showing how such feelings begin and then percolate, and especially feeling different can lead to insecurity and irrationality. It also shows how kids (like the adults they will become) judge others and themselves according to stereotypes and social habits. While Greg is unhappy that other students treat him unfairly, he does the same thing, calling classmates “morons” and “freak jobs.”
The boys’ limited point of view is cleverly conveyed in their fear of those mysterious creatures called girls. “I don’t know why girls our age can’t just talk like regular people,” moans Rowley. Greg has a history in elementary school with the imperious Patty (Laine MacNeil), who repeatedly threatens him (and worse, beats him in wrestling). But he doesn’t know quite what to make of Angie (Chloe Moretz), who writes for the school paper and spends much of the movie observing (and reporting) his mishaps. Angie (who is not in the book) provides a helpful analysis of middle school as an unjust hierarchy, where “The weak are picked on” and children learn how to follow rules and accept their “places.”
Angie means to fight back, much like Greg, though their approaches are different. The movie uses a recurring, resonant image to illustrate the arbitrariness of social order. A piece of cheese lies on the schoolyard pavement—decomposing colorfully and enhanced by animation. The threat is that anyone who touches it, by accident or out of curiosity, is then labeled as having the “Cheese Touch,” a kind of hyper-cooties that makes you ostracized until you can pass off the touch to some other hapless soul. It’s a cruel and ridiculous system, and the movie makes good fun of it.
Who’s Going To Love It
Fans of the book will like the movie’s general faithfulness to the plot and characters. The gross-out material—boogers and the molding cheese—will appeal to youngsters and those who remember what it was like to be one (or trigger bad memories, perhaps). So too is Rodrick’s “scary story” for Halloween both nostalgic and funny now, as he maneuvers his way through a tale of “devil worshippers” who made the woods near Rodrick and Greg’s house “dangerous.” The story also makes clear the subtle differences in understanding that develop over just a few years: Roderick has an awareness of what his brother will believe, even before Greg is aware. This sort of dynamic may appeal to 11-year-olds en route to a more worldly adolescence.
What To Be Aware Of
The movie includes some antic violence, as when Greg and Rowley must escape the bullies in the pickup truck or when they’re directed to play a game of “Gladiator” in gym glass (it’s as brutal as it sounds, in a comic sort of way). The kids engage in lots of name-calling, but the movie shows how they get such ideas, when they watch an instructional video in class called “It’s Awesome to Be Me!” The ill at ease protagonist, feeling ostracized in school, shows off his break-dancing skills (comically performed by an obvious double) and wins all kinds of kudos. The system is plainly silly, but no one seems able to stop it or avoid it.
Greg discovers Rodrick’s secret porn magazine (the cover shows a busty woman in a black bikini), which he delvers into the hands of his younger brother in order to get Rodrick in trouble, much to mom’s horror.
Aimed at the age group it depicts, Diary of a Wimpy Kid relies on those viewers to get its central irony, that Greg is not actually wimpy, but a manipulative, anxious, and sometimes devious boy, an unreliable narrator who passes himself off as reliable. This makes for occasional inconsistencies: Greg’s humiliation (gleefully enacted by Patty) in a wrestling match leads eventually to his revenge in the school play, but neither of these episodes ends in his explicit self-understanding. Instead, Patty is again and again the villain: it’s Greg’s view of the world, of course, and he tends not to see his own responsibility for what goes wrong. Hopefully, his audience will see what he doesn’t.
6 out of 10
Diary of a Wimpy Kid
Director: Thor Freudenthal
Cast: Zachary Gordon, Robert Capron, Rachael Harris, Steve Zahn, Devon Bostick, Chloe Moretz
Studio: 20th Century Fox
US Premiere: March 19, 2010