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'Diary of a Wimpy Kid' speaks to the inner nerd in all of us, using pipsqueak bodies to tell grown-up truths

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wimpy-kidImage Credit: Rob McEwanI wish Jeff Kinney’s hilarious series of Diary of a Wimpy Kid books had existed when I was in junior high school. The comfort of reading fictional Greg Heffley’s dispatches from the battlefields of middle school would have been a tremendous comfort to this kid who was the tallest girl in her class, wore braces, played the viola, and hung with fellow dorkettes in her suburban public-school cafeteria. But I’m happy that at least today’s current crop of 6th, 7th, and 8th graders know that, whatever they’re feeling, Jeff Kinney’s Greg Heffley has felt it too and has written it down, sometimes in ways that make readers laugh until milk comes out of their noses. And in my  professional capacity, I’m even happier to know that the Greg Heffley spirit has been so successfully translated to the screen. What can I say, this movie made me laugh, even if no milk was allowed in the screening room. (My particular junior-high scenery didn’t include a toxic slice of cheese rotting outside on the playground like the specimen at Greg’s school, but we did have a boy who made  girls look at a realistic glob of rubber vomit he placed in strategic locations, reliably eliciting girl-shrieks.)

My mature enjoyment of such a kid-oriented movie has got me thinking, once again, about the unique power of “kid'” movies to tell truths with a kind of freedom, honesty, and creativity that’s sometimes compromised when those same situations involve older characters. Adult movies are based on the shenanigans of bullies, fat picked-on kids, weirdos, teachers’ pets, followers, rebels, cowards, cut-ups, girls who act all goody-goody and play dirty, and cute, dull boys as much as kid movies are — after all, I’ve just listed the characteristics of all of humankind, not just 7th graders. But when those bullies, cut-ups, weirdos, and good girls are played by actual young people, we pay attention to them with our defenses down and our hearts opened up.  It’s no accident that in societies where artistic expression isn’t a reliable freedom (I’m thinking of Iran, or China), filmmakers often use children as their subjects, their protagonists, their pint-sized diplomats whose very predicaments can be read as political commentary.

The moral of Jeff Kinney’s wise tales is that middle school is its own unique hell, and yet somehow most of us survive; some of us are even capable of looking back (now that those days are long, long ago) and laughing affectionately at what wimps we once were, every single one of us. Which is why I’ll share one more diary confession: In my junior high school, I was in awe of M, a girl with perfectly smooth, long, blonde, bouncy hair. Because of that perfect hair, M belonged to a popular clique. One day at the bus stop, I noticed that M was wearing a black Pappagallo flat on her dainty right foot, and a navy Pappagallo flat on her delicate left foot. “Oh! I thought. OMG! This is a new style! Is this a new style? Should I be doing that? What a subtle, sophisticated fashion choice!”

The reality — that a ditzy M forgot to look at her own feet that morning — was never an option I’d consider, then.

Feel free to contribute your own tale of middle-school mortification.