IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

‘Fried Worms’ is a surprisingly good treat

Film has a sweet story, good child actors and an excellent message
/ Source: The Associated Press

“How to Eat Fried Worms” is a lot tastier than its title implies.

This is a family film that has it all, except, say, a gazillion-dollar marketing budget that might actually get people to come see it.

The movie has victims taking on bullies, something we all can relate to. It’s got a parent-approved message of tolerance and understanding that’s not too sappy for children to appreciate. It’s got a passel of goofy kids with weird names and distinctive faces whose idiosyncrasies would make them fit right in on any grade-school playground. It’s got a good dose of humor that’s cute without being overly sentimental.

And for the kid in all of us clamoring to be yucked out, it’s got worms: gross ones, icky ones, pan-fried ones, microwaved ones. Even worms cooked into an omelet or blended into a spinach-and-broccoli puree.

Adapting the screenplay from Thomas Rockwell’s children’s novel, writer-director Bob Dolman (a former “WKRP in Cincinnati” and “SCTV” writer who made his directing debut with 2002’s “The Banger Sisters”) maintains just the right playful tone throughout.

Dolman keeps things light and nimble, letting his characters fret hard over their little problems but never allowing matters to lapse into the hollow preaching of an after-school special.

The well-chosen cast is led by Luke Benward as Billy, an 11-year-old who runs afoul of his class bully, Joe (Adam Hicks), on the first day at his new school. Joe and his toadies load up Billy’s lunch Thermos with slimy worms, prompting an act of defiance by the new kid and a bet with his tormentors that he can eat 10 worms in a single day.

When the appointed day arrives, Billy finds himself saddled with his little brother (the adorably mischievous Ty Panitz). To baby-sit his brother, Billy enlists the help of gangly classmate Erika (Hallie Kate Eisenberg), who endears herself from her opening scene, when she comes to Billy’s aid and unassumingly tells him, “Sorry I’m so tall.”

With a gang of kids on hand bearing such nicknames as Plug, Twitch and Techno Head, the daylong battle is on, Billy and his churning but resilient stomach gradually chipping away at Joe’s authority over his foot-soldiers.

Billy is a kid you can’t help liking, Benward infusing him with a rich mix of whiny sarcasm, church-mouse apprehension and flashes of foolhardy boldness. The redheaded, freckled Hicks is a bit too cute to come off as a really menacing bully, but he and Benward develop an interesting rapport as antagonism slowly gives way to traces of kinship and chumminess.

The movie offers a satisfying little glimpse into the trickle-down theory of bullying in which those on the short-end of the stick look for someone weaker to bully themselves.

It also effectively weaves in a parallel story of adjustment at work for Billy’s dad (Tom Cavanagh), who drafts his wife (Kimberly Williams-Paisley) into helping him cope with his own perceived tormentor.

“That’s the guy you’re afraid of?” she asks her husband when she first sees the pencil-neck geek Billy’s dad had been worried about.

The movie is full of tidbits like that, phrases of wisdom that defuse unreasoning fears with simple, childlike insight — lines like “Boys are so stupid,” “Last Monday seems like a long time ago,” and “Puke has a mind of its own.”

OK, that last one’s just there to remind us that this movie has worms, and really gross ones. But if there’s insight to be had about puke, that line sums it up as well as any other.