Some movies present childhood as a magical world of excitement and joy, while others dare to show the wretched cruelty that's inherent in growing up. While How to Eat Fried Worms falls in the latter category, its running themes of courage, friendship and integrity keep it from sinking too far into despairing muck.
The 1972 book by Thomas Rockwell is an evergreen favorite of kiddie lit, prized as much for its message as the gross-out-factor. The screen version varies in details, but sticks to the main plot: Once-popular fifth-grader Billy (Luke Benward) is struggling to fit into a new school in a new town. He's soon faced with the head bully: detestable, freckle-faced snot Joe (Adam Hicks), who's fond of pummeling kids with his weapon of choice, a "death ring" supposedly laced with a slow-acting poison that won't kill a victim until the eighth grade. Through intimidation and sheer force, Joe has assembled a "team" of sycophants to do his bidding, kids with names like Plug, Twitch and "Techno head" (named for his mouthful of orthodontics).
After the preteen goon squad replaces Billy's Jell-O with a pile of slimy night crawlers, to save face he claims to love eating the stuff and bravely submits to a challenge to eat 10 of them in a day without puking. To help him complete his disgusting task, Billy finds an ally in Erica (former Pepsi girl Hallie Kate Eisenberg, just entering her awkward years). Tom Cavanagh (TV's Ed) is Billy's big goof of a dad who has his own parallel subplot about fitting into a new job, and Kimberley Williams is the nurturing wife and mom.
The bulk of the movie is a grueling catalog of ways to serve up creepy crawlers, from lard-fried to microwaved: It'll make kids squeal and the adults want to ralph their Milk Duds (or gummy worms, for that matter). It's also tough for adults to sit through the Darwinian playground nastiness without flashing back to their own childhood hell. Fried Worms has heart without being syrupy, yet while the bully is ultimately killed with kindness, he's such a nasty little twerp that you really wish he'd been served a nice fat knuckle sandwich worms on the side.
Corey Hall writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].