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The Independent Critic

Luke Benward, Kimberly Williams-Paisley, Tom Cavanagh, Adam Hicks
Bob Dolman
Bob Dolman, Thomas Rockwell
Rated PG
98 Mins.
New Line
 "How to Eat Fried Worms" Review 
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New town. New friends. New menu.

What do you get when you mix up a Spaz, a bully, the "new kid," a brainiac girl, a young mad scientist and Clint Howard?

Yep, you guessed it. You get "How to Eat Fried Worms," a surprisingly funny, often sweet and constantly gross adaptation of Thomas Rockwell's award-winning children's book.

In the film, Billy (Luke Benward) is taunted and teased on his first day of school in the special way that only 10-year-old boys can taunt and tease. Befriended rather quickly by the school's previous outcast, the tall brainiac Erica (Hallie Kate Eisenberg), Billy nevertheless finds himself quickly coming into direct conflict with the school bully, Joe (Adam Hicks). Throw in a supporting cast with such names as Twitch (Alexander Gould), Benjy (Ryan Malgarini), Bradley (Philip Bolden), Plug (Blake Garrett), Adam (Austin Rogers) and a few others and you get the hilariously juvenile makings of elementary school in what feels like fine 3-D fashion.

Those of you who've read "How to Eat Fried Worms" will celebrate that screenwriter/director Bob Dolman ("The Banger Sisters" most recently) has very much captured the spirit and innocence of the book, though the film is definitely not a page-by-page adaptation.

After quickly acquiring the nickname of "Wormboy," Billy finds himself backed into the corner and accepting a bet that he can eat 10 worms by the next day at 7pm. While I could never figure out why Billy didn't just say "Hey, wait a minute. You have to do the same thing," he never does but the loser does have to walk through school with worms down the front of their pants.

Does anyone else remember this sort of thing from school?

Ahhhh. The memories. I remember days upon days filled with just this sort of dare.

Yes, it's true. I've eaten more than my share of worms.

Yum. Yum.

The film's early scenes plant vivid portrayals of Billy's weak stomach, thanks largely to the ever-present messy eating habits of his baby brother, Woody (Ty Panitz). The build-up to Billy's 10 worm delicacies is delightfully gross and sure to bring shrieks of joy and familiarity to all the young boys in the audience.

Luke Benward is perfectly cast as Billy, projecting that all too familiar blend of careless bravado, innocence, independence and, yes, an almost sad desperation to fit in. Benward reminds me a bit of a young Fred Savage on "The Wonder Years."

As Joe, Adam Hicks scowls and grimaces enough to overcome his inherent cuteness. While it's relatively easy to forgive one-dimensional characters in a children's film, Hicks offers a surprisingly multi-layered performance as a young man who is merely socializing the only way he's ever known. I won't spoil his transformation for you other than to say it is done with enough authenticity to be believable, but with enough direct action that nearly every child is likely to watch the film and go "Oh, wait. I get it."

The collection of fit and misfit friends combines the childhood loyalty of "Stand by Me" with the genuinely good nature of a film like "Holes." Each character is given moments to shine, but a particularly endearing performances is turned in by Austin Rogers as Adam, a nerdish looking young man who believes himself destined for death in the eighth grade due to being hit by Joe's death ring.

Eisenberg, while being given little to do, shines as the monumentally more mature, quietly loyal friend who becomes subjected, at least temporarily, to Billy's own form of bullying (Though, really, one less "Boys are weird" line would have been okay!). Without resorting to the histrionic moral lessons of "The Ant Bully," Dolman's script takes a kinder, gentler approach to saying "Being bullied doesn't give you permission to be a bully."

Another nice touch for Dolman is that the adults in this film aren't portrayed as caricatures, neglectful parents or wastoids.

Okay, Clint Howard may be the possible exception.

What is it about Howard? He's ALWAYS portrayed as just a little bit it the fact that he plays "a little bit off" really, really well? Regardless, Howard's relatively brief performance as a slightly off-kilter uncle to one of the boys is goofy and fun.

The OTHER adults, however, are all displayed with a combination of reverence, dignity and humanity.

The always strong character actor James Rebhorn is a delightful Principal Burdock, a man who evokes both awe and giggles from students who constantly respect but challenge him.

As Billy's parents, Kimberly Williams-Paisley (the "Father of the Bride" films) and Tom Cavanagh (The TV series "Ed") are caring, present and understanding while only being a tad clueless about the unique predicament of their son. While Williams-Paisley isn't given nearly enough to do, Cavanagh projects an easy rapport with Benward and his ability to reframe Billy's situation with his own is fun to watch.

Those with a weak stomach themselves would do well to note that "How to Eat Fried Worms" is, indeed, quite gross. With a variety of incredibly unappetizing concoctions being developed, this is not a film that will turn worms into an American delicacy anytime soon.

Being a film squarely targeted at young boys, "How to Eat Fried Worms" predictably contains lessons about friendship, bullying, family and the events in our lives that shape who we are. Blessed with across the board strong performances from both its youthful and adult performers, "How to Eat Fried Worms" is the kind of film that families should see together. It can, and should, lead to discussions about topics that face virtually every child these days.

The film's original score by Mark Mothersbaugh complements the action nicely, and the production aspects are simple but effective.

Dolman clearly "gets" a connection between the fried worms that young Billy, quite literally, is forced to eat to survive in his new school and the fried worms we all eat throughout our lives as we struggle to learn, live, find friends and adapt to life's constant changes.

Nobody likes me.

Everybody Hates me.

I'm gonna eat some worms...

After watching "How to Eat Fried Worms," this camp song from my childhood will never sound the same again.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic