Rachael Harris and Zachary Gordon, in 'Diary of a Wimpy Kid'

Dir. Thor Freudenthal
(2010, PG, 94 min)
★ ★ ★ ½

Greg Heffley, the title character in Diary of a Wimpy Kid, tries desperately to be liked, but portrayer Zachary Gordon doesn’t. It’s an effective performance because he isn’t ingratiating, as child actors often can be; the character is vain, narcissistic, selfish, and mean, and that’s how the now-12-year-old actor plays him, giving this ostensible kids’ movie a sour potency. It’s tough to like Greg, and that makes it easy to like the film.

It plays like a middle-school Mean Girls, with Greg as a kind of tween survivalist, savvy yet hapless as he navigates the pre-teen wilderness and studies the wildlife. He knows all the tricks to being popular but can’t seem to make them work for him; he knows the words but not the music. His best friend Rowley (Robert Capron) has never considered that he should try to be popular, and under most circumstances he wouldn’t be: he’s heavy; awkward; overly eager; and, according to Greg, immature. He owns a bike with pink tassels and a shirt with a picture of his mother on it and doesn’t know what’s wrong with that. He has an openness and sensitivity that a lot of bullies like to beat out of kids like him, and a best friend generous enough to bully him in advance, for his own good.

Greg is his own worst enemy. Our first big hint of this comes when he dismisses Angie (Chloe Grace Moretz), a worldly seventh grader with a knowing look who tries to befriend him. He meets her under the bleachers while escaping gym class and writes her off as a freak, but watching them together, we can see their future. One day, after the nonsense of adolescence is over, Greg will be Joseph Gordon-Levitt — if he’s lucky — and Angie will be the girl he wishes would talk to a guy like him. For now she’s just the weird girl under the bleachers who writes for the newspaper and doesn’t understand how important it is to be so very popular, but he would be lucky to be a featured player in her movie, instead of the other way around.

The film was written by Jackie Filgo, Jeff Filgo, Gabe Sachs, and Jeff Judah, adapted from a novel by Jeff Kinney, and directed by Thor Freudenthal. Their gags are kid-friendly, but their humor seems equally aimed at adults who used to be kids like these, or know kids like these. Most of the characters are exaggerated types, which Freudenthal and company use to show how a sixth grader like Greg perceives the world around him — as a grand hierarchy of broad social mores and roles: the Cute Boy, the Angry Girl, the Outsider, the Weirdo, the Bullies, the Out-of-Touch Parents. Greg fancies himself the Cool Kid, and on his first day of school ranks himself 19th most popular out of 200. Eventually, he concedes that he’s dropped to the low-70s, but he’s flattering himself.

The film is pleasingly old-fashioned in style and reference, with the feeling of being remembered rather than told in the present tense. In addition to contemporary alt-rock groups Kaiser Chiefs and the Vines, the soundtrack includes selections from the Beastie Boys and Salt-n-Peppa, and a comic scene revolves around Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart,” which may be better appreciated by the parents in the audience than their kids. Greg breaks in from time to time to address the camera, giving perspective on the previous year of his life, but the story could as easily have come from the nostalgic adult narrators of The Wonder Years or A Christmas Story. Maybe Greg will remember it that way in a couple of decades, by which time he will hopefully have learned a thing or two, and married a smart girl like Angie.