As I watched the trailer for "How to Eat Fried Worms" over and over this summer, one word that didn't come to mind was "nuanced."
"Brrapf!" Several times.
But "nuanced?" Never.
No surprise, considering the half-minute teaser consisted of little more than an 11-year-old boy eating worms and trying not to throw them back up.
An hour and 38 minutes of that?
But darned if "How to Eat Fried Worms" isn't about more than that. Darned if it isn't nuanced.
"Worms" centers around a familiar rite of passage: being the new kid. The new kid here is Billy Forrester, who moves to town with a slightly protective mom, a dad going through a similar passage at his new job and a toddler brother always showboating for attention -- at least in Billy's eyes.
Day One at school finds Billy crossing paths with the class tough Joe Guire. Joe and his posse seek to initiate the new kid by replacing the soup in his Thermos with worms. Billy, in a moment of misguided inspiration, flings one of the worms at Joe, landing it smack squiggly on Joe's face.
Billy's brief bout with bravado quickly escalates until he finds himself boasting that he could eat -- nay, he has eaten -- 10 worms.
"Ten!" with all 10 fingers displayed for emphasis. Betcha can't do it again, bets Joe.
Thus begins a progressive dinner of sorts in which Billy, Joe and Joe's entourage concoct such worm delicacies as worms fried in pig fat, worms in marshmallow goo, worms in an omelette (the latter inadvertently eaten by the principal).
Yes, things do get disgusting, and weaker constitutions may want to bring a barf bag. (The good news: No chunks are actually blown on screen.) But the real story isn't about retching, it's about relationships.
Bully Joe (played with a freckle-faced scowl by Adam Hicks) has a gang consisting of a hand-picked core and hangers-on who serve at his pleasure. They are intimates by intimidation, and as the movie progresses, as Billy (Luke Benward) nervously stands his ground, the disaffected begin defecting to his camp.
Not in an annoyingly predictable Disney way. Rather, in the way of little boys on the cusp of discovering who they are. Like the sleepy-eyed, cherubic Adam (Austin Rogers), who defiantly announces he's joining Billy's team.
"But Joe assigned you to Billy's team," someone points out.
"Yeah," Adam counters, lip aquiver, "but this time I'm joining Billy's team on my own!"
Director Bob Dolman ("The Banger Sisters") deftly finesses this jockeying. On the one hand, if the boys defect, Joe might punch them with his "death ring" (which, legend has it, injects a time-release poison guaranteeing certain death come eighth grade). On the other, should Billy eat 10 worms and win the bet, Joe will be all but dethroned as bully supreme. It's a dilemma that will strike a chord with anyone going through -- or who has gone through -- adolescence.
A film that captures kid relationships this well comes along about once a decade. In the '90s, it was "Harriet the Spy," which dealt with friendships betrayed; in the '80s it was Rob Reiner's "Stand By Me," four boys' dark passage into adulthood; in the '70s, it was "The Bad News Bears,"a group of misfit kids who come together, sorta, under a misfit coach.
Now, in the '00s, we have "How to Eat Fried Worms," an insightful look at little boys and their loyalties, a film definitely worth a look.
If you can stomach it.
Staff writer Joe Miller can be reached at 812-8450 or firstname.lastname@example.org.