“**”1/2 The 1973 Thomas Rockwell book, How to Eat Fried Worms, is full of great dialogue and vivid characters. The 2006 film, sad to say, simply doesn’t hold up. There is much to be admired in the story itself: outcast new kid takes on school bully; but the way it’s (lovingly) directed the cutesy kitsch overwhelms the film’s powerful message. How to Eat Fried Worms opens on the weak stomach of Billy (Luke Benward), an 11-year-old who get sick at the sight of his younger brother smearing burrito all over his face. Billy pukes at the film’s outset, which isn’t supposed to be a good sign. We find out he has just moved to a new town where he and his brother will have wholly different experiences of school life. His younger brother, for instance, goes to preschool where everyone still loves everyone else and no one gets teased or bullied the way they do in elementary school (it just gets worse and worse, doesn’t it?). Billy, on the other hand, is targeted immediately for being “the new kid” and is the victim of a prank: someone replaces his soup with worms. Taunted by the school’s main bully, Joe Guier (Adam Hicks), Billy’s new nickname becomes “Worm Boy.” Billy’s attempts to challenge the bully only get worse as Billy is chided into agreeing to eat ten fried worms. Not only that, but he has to eat them all on Saturday before 7pm. The film is about those ten worms he has to eat – how and where and why he eats them eventually defines who he is and his place in the pecking order. He is helped along by an evolved female, Erika (teased for being too tall) played by Hallie Kate Eisenberg (courageously battling the onset of adolescence with grace and charm). With each worm he is forced to swallow, the bully Joe keeps changing the rules. Why? Because he can. No one has ever challenged him before. First the worms are to be fried. When that doesn’t work out, they’re mixed up with marshmallow and tuna and other disgusting items. Still, Billy persists, swallowing whatever nastiness comes his way – becoming more and more empowered with each wiggly worm. It’s hard not appreciate what writer/director Bob Doleman is trying to do here: give victims another way of looking at bullies. Kids are bullied at school all the time, and yet they never come forward to tell anyone (did you?). It’s also interesting that Doleman chose to film this as if it were in the 1970’s. He doesn’t modernize it at all. This is not a world of cell phones and computers, and it’s not a time in history when kids were entitled and over-indulged. But unfortunately, the film’s impact is lessened because of the dumb camera tricks he plays and what comes off as forced “lightness” that ultimately sinks this movie. There is nothing nice about bullies. To any 11-year-old they’re terrifying. It’s getting over that irrational fear that sets you free. This film seemed to want so much to be light and breezy so as not to put off any potential audience member that it lost a lot of its grit. Eating worms, fried or otherwise, can’t be THAT easy. It doesn’t ring true that Billy, with his notoriously weak stomach, would be able to control his barfing. It doesn’t make for dramatic tension when the end is a foregone conclusion. Nonetheless, How to Eat Fried Worms is a good film for kids, especially boys and girls who don’t quite fit in. Indeed, it is Eisenberg who steals the show with her dimples and her “boys are so weird” line. Nice to see a child actor make it to the other side without incident.
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