How to Eat Fried Worms
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"It's the worst thing ever." That's 11-year-old Billy Forrester's assessment of being the new kid in school. It turns out he's not far off, as we discover in this big-screen adaptation of Thomas Rockwell's 1973 children's novel, How to Eat Fried Worms.
On his first day of school, Billy hasn't even stepped foot in the building when he's singled out by his class's resident bully: a tall, red-haired, freckle-faced tormenter named Joe. Then at lunchtime, Billy discovers that Joe and Co. have filled his lunch-box thermos with wriggling worms. Billy responds reflexively by tossing one of the squirming critters at his antagonist. In a misguided attempt to defuse the escalating situation, Billy also brags about how he loves to eat worms ("the greasier, the slimier, the better").
Joe uses Billy's bluff against him, daring him to prove that he can eat 10 worms in a single day—without vomiting. If Billy can do it, Joe has to walk through school after stuffing worms down his pants. Or vice versa. And so begins a strange and disgusting "culinary" odyssey as Joe and his lieutenants concoct ever more hideous recipes for worms, frying them, blending them, microwaving them, and combining them with tuna fish, marshmallows, ketchup, broccoli, spinach and hot sauce, among other things.
One by one, Joe's friends realize that being the bully's henchmen really isn't what it's cracked up to be. That's not because Billy is a particularly persuasive kid; but he does ultimately manage to prove that bullies don't always have to win.
The film also demonstrates that relationships are important. Billy's dad is also struggling to fit in as he starts a new job. Several times he goes out of his way to talk to Billy, to empathize with his son and to encourage him. He challenges Billy not to judge people to quickly and reminds him that it takes time to adjust to a new situation. Thus, the importance of family and fatherhood are underscored.
When almost everyone is making fun of Billy, a classmate named Erika (whose maturity exceeds her years) befriends him. She's frequently made fun of for being tall, but she tries her best not to let it get to her. And when Billy is tempted to quit the contest, Erika reminds him that no one in the school has stood up to Joe the way he has. Billy perseveres, and Joe's friends all realize that Billy's courage is actually cooler than Joe's mean-spirited intimidation.
Perhaps two-thirds of the way through the movie, we learn that Joe has a bullying big brother named Nigel. The filmmakers don't spend much time on him, but they clearly want us to see why Joe has become the young oppressor that he is. In the end, Billy and the other boys stand up to Nigel when he berates and belittles Joe. The message? Bullying begets more bullying until someone breaks the cycle.
[Spoiler Warning] Even though he's technically won the worm-eating contest, Billy confesses to Joe that because of something no one else noticed, he actually ate only nine worms. Billy then joins Joe in the worm walk of shame through the school hallways, though by now the enemies have become friends.
True to his nature, Joe regularly shoves Billy and several other of the boys around. Other mildly violent content includes Nigel smearing a peanut butter sandwich on Joe's face, Billy hitting his head on a tree and another boy crashing his bike into a bush. Billy's dad gets hit by a tennis ball and a tennis racket. He also falls down and careens into a fence.
Some of the boys seem to truly believe that if Joe hits you with his "death ring" you'll get poisoned and eventually die once you reach the 8th grade. (An animated cartoon shows one lad in his underwear as he's filled up with red poison that kills him and turns him into a skeleton.) An elderly lady chases the boys away from her bait shop, swinging her bag at them.
Crude or Profane Language
One of the guys says "oh god." Another exclaims, "Jeez!" Name-calling takes up a fair bit of screen time, with the inclusion of such terms as "punk," "midget," "worm" and "joke." Upset, Billy slips up and insults Erika, calling her a "big giant."
Drug and Alcohol Content
Other Negative Elements
Not surprisingly, gross-out humor abounds in How to Eat Fried Worms. As previously mentioned, worms are cooked and blended with all manner of food. Two of the more "creative" (and thus more imitable) worm-cooking scenes involve a magnifying glass and a microwave oven. Let's just say neither process went well for the worms. Another worm squirts voluminously when Billy sticks it with his fork. Two scenes depict boys throwing up. Yet another shows Billy inadvertently spitting chunks of worm onto Joe's face.
The boys face difficulty finding acceptable places to cook their wormy meals. They use a grill in a public park even though they're not old enough to be lighting fires. They cook a worm into an omelet at a restaurant. (The worm is then consumed by their principal.) They trash the kitchen of another boy's house. Much more problematically, they also break into a fishing tackle and bait store.
Billy, meanwhile, has an antagonistic relationship with his preschool-age brother, Woody, who often demands the spotlight and seems to be rewarded with attention from Mom for doing so. Billy says, "I hate him," and Woody later returns the favor by saying he wishes his brother were dead.
So, when Dad and Mom leave Woody in Billy's care on a Saturday, Billy quickly passes him off to Erika as makeshift babysitter and instructs him not to tell their parents what's going on. (Erika proceeds to teach Woody a song about dead birds.)
Billy isn't honest with his folks until near the end of the movie regarding the kind of harassment he's experiencing at school. And even then he's not clear enough for them to understand fully. Likewise, a new friend who gets grounded for his worm shenanigans later sneaks out of his house to rendezvous with the guys.
While looking at a diagram of a worm, the boys discover an arrow pointing to its "sphincter." One of them quips, "That's the worm's butt." In true junior high style, this sends them into paroxysms of laughter as they dance around, repeating the word sphincter over and over again. One boy exclaims, "It just went to the bathroom on my hand!" Woody says his bike is hitting his "dillydink." In case we couldn't figure out what that was, he spells it out clearly: "My dillydink is my penis."
The school's principal and the students' teacher are both portrayed as bumbling, clueless, overbearing dolts. The students nickname the principal "Boiler Head," which they frequently call him behind his back.
Watching How to Eat Fried Worms takes you back to a simpler, less complex time—a time when worms might truly have captivated the attention of junior high boys. To me, it felt like an after-school special circa 1975. Given the fact that most films for preteens today include not-so-subtle sexual innuendo and other world-weary content, the complete lack of such material felt refreshingly anachronistic. It felt like boyhood the way it might have been 30 or 40 years ago.
Though the film is about bullying and has no shortage of gross-out scenes—not to mention kids who don't always make the wisest decisions—it's still about as innocent as anything you're likely to find on the big screen today. Boyish, in fact, might be the best word to describe it. The complexities of love and sex and adulthood simply haven't occurred to this movie's Leave It to Beaver-like characters. Unfortunately, that sweetness could also be its Achilles' heel at the box office. I have my doubts about whether today's too-mature-for-their-lowrise-jeans tween set will connect much with these simple, earthy characters.
But since every generation has its schoolyard thugs to contend with, one aspect of the film they might connect with is its message about confronting bullies. What message does it give? With no embarrassment or 21st-century self-awareness at all, the film emphatically posits that bullies will back down and quit intimidating others if someone has the courage to stand up to them.
While I applaud the idea of standing up to belligerent toughs, who're often driven by insecurity and the need to be in control, I wonder if the advice Fried Worms gives is as applicable today as it might have been 33 years ago. Once upon a time the worst damage a bully might inflict would be with his fists. Today, however, we live in a world where even 11-year-olds might be packing a pistol or knife.
Not that the shape of a kid's response to bullying today should be based solely on fear of fatality. Still, Billy's response should have gone beyond his own wits and wiles. Onscreen adults—even the ones who aren't too dumb to matter—are never asked to intervene, or even given all of the facts so that they can proffer an opinion. So while families may gobble up Fried Worms because it's not as slimy as most of its counterparts, more than a few middle school principals will be disappointed with the way it teaches kids to take matters into their own hands (or mouths, as the case may be) when it comes to dealing with tweenage tyrants.
Other Belief Systems
Readability Age Range
Luke Benward as Billy; Hallie Kate Eisenberg as Erika; Adam Hicks as Joe; Tom Cavanaugh as Dad; Kimberly Williams as Mom; Ty Panitz as Woody; Austin Rogers as Adam; Alexander Gould as Twitch; Ryan Malgarini as Benjy; Philip Bolden as Bradley; James Rebhorn as Principal "Boiler Head" Burdock; Andrew Gillingham as Techno Mouth; Blake Garrett as Plug; Alexander Agate as Donny; Nick Krause as Nigel
Bob Dolman ( )
New Line Cinema