Walden Media is a relatively new production company, specializing primarily in cinematic adaptations of young-adult novels with some sort of educational merit, but they are just about the best working today when it comes to the family market. In general, their moviesamong them, 2003's "Holes
," 2005's "Because of Winn-Dixie
" and 2005's "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
"are smart, stay truthful to their source material, and never pander to or look down upon any one demographic. They teach valuable lessons in natural, unobtrusive ways that avoid preachiness, and are mostly free of the flash-in-the-pan pop cultural references that so often date the lame, so-called "hip" films of today. What Walden Media's mission seems to be is to create ageless motion pictures, ones that will stand the test of time and speak to future generations of viewers. Their interest lies in making good films, not ones that reek of gluttonous commercialism and product placement.
Based on the famed award-winning children's novel by Thomas Rockwell, "How to Eat Fried Worms" continues this praiseworthy trend. Engaging and resonant for audiences of all ages, the film works both as a nostalgic, not always pleasant trip back to the grade school days of childish immaturity and bullying, and also as a splendidly engaging comedy that kids will go wild for. What appeared in the theatrical trailer and advertising campaign as a perpetually stupid and gross-out excursion into lowest-common-denominator territory is vastly misleading and a further example of the dumbing-down process of modern day marketing tactics. "How to Eat Fried Worms" has a few stomach-churning moments, although nothing as sickening as what can be seen on TV's "Fear Factor," and is actually about much more than a how-to guide to consuming grub.
When fifth-grader Billy (Luke Benward) moves with his familyloving mom (Kimberly Williams-Paisley) and dad (Tom Cavanagh) and a messy, doted-upon younger brother Woody (Ty Panitz)to a new house and town, he is understandably sullen about being in a different place and losing all of his friends. Things don't get better when Billy starts school and immediately becomes the number-one target of bully Joe (Adam Hicks) and his gang of henchmen. With only tall classmate Erika (Hallie Kate Eisenberg) willing to stand by his side, Billy feels like a hopeless outcast. A chance to gain the respect of his classmates comes when Billy accepts a bet made by Joe to eat ten worms over the course of a Saturday, each one prepared in gradually cruder culinary concoctions by aspiring pint-sized chef Benjy (Ryan Malgarini). It may take a miracle for him to succeedBilly is well aware he suffers from a weak stomachbut it's a daunting feat he is determined to achieve.
Written and directed with sharp sensibilities by Bob Dolman (2002's "The Banger Sisters
"), "How to Eat Fried Worms" begins as an uncomfortable portrait of bullying that doesn't pull any punches or sweeten things up for the PG-rating, and eventually segues into a shrewd, mostly unsentimental portrait about childhood peer relationships and those first few cursory steps toward growing up. Never one for a cheap or disposable gag, Dolman treats his humormost of it stemming from the realistic ways the kids interact and the on-target depictions of 10- and 11-year-oldsas seriously as he does his lightly dramatic material. Because of this, the movie is quite consistently funny, reminding older viewers of their own experiences when they were that age.
Dolman also brings a welcome edge to the script, as when Billy and a few other classmates become enraptured with the knowledge that worms have sphincters, and also in a sobering scene where it is discovered antagonist Joe is bullied himself by mean older brother Nigel (Nick Krause). This latter moment is surprising and even harsh, as it should be, opening Joe up as a better-rounded individual whose own poor behavior to those around him comes as no accident. Additionally effective without overstating its point is a subplot in which Billy's parents are invited to play tennis with Dad's new boss and wife. What seems like the setup for a challenge intended to put Billy's dad in his place as an employee at the bottom of the workforce totem pole turns out to be a harmless and friendly game. Thus, as Billy frets over being the picked-upon "new kid" in school and works to do something about it, his father's widely different and more positive welcome into a new environment suggests that interpersonal politics won't continue to be as they are during one's pre-teen years. For Billy, this, too, shall pass.
Working with a primary cast of child actorsthe adults are of the authority figure typeis no doubt difficult to pull off; they must be comfortable in front of the camera and able to disappear into the role they are playing without straining over trying to be overly cute. Writer-director Bob Dolman has hit the jackpot with this roundup, especially in lead star Luke Benward (2005's "Because of Winn-Dixie
"). Benward makes Billy into a hero the viewer wants to see be happy, all the while gracefully meeting the demands of the comedic fodder and more down-to-earth side. There is an authenticity and screen magnetism to this promising young actor that cannot be faked. Having spent a few years lying low, former Pepsi commercial girl Hallie Kate Eisenberg (2000's "Beautiful
") is a winning presence as Erika, Billy's best chance for a confidanteeven if she is a girl. The rest of the performances are equally strong in that each character is accurately played and has a unique personality in relation to the rest of the ensemble.
Having read the book as a child, it can be said that "How to Eat Fried Worms," if taking a creative liberty here and there with the script, faithfully captures the same raucous, good-natured spirit of the novel. Better still, director Bob Dolman turns down all temptations to throw in unnecessary fart jokesthis would seem to be an annoying prerequisite of the family film genre these daysand pleasingly narrows in on human behavior as a useful tool for comedy. As Billy trudges along on his quest to eat ten worms before 7:00 p.m., the movie stops being about the bet and starts being about the journey a group of children take in accepting each other as he or she is. "How to Eat Fried Worms" is airy in tone and not left wanting in evoking a great many smiles and chuckles of recognition, but the movie goes against the grain to be more than just an amiable trifle of a kid's flick. As a coming-of-age story (or a starting-to-come-of-age story), it's also genuinely perceptive and wise.