The Ugly Kid

2001, PG, 74 min. Directed by Hector Barron. Starring Todd Bosley, Brendan Ryan Barrett, Mary Mara, Sammy Elliott, Kristen Parker, Patrick Higgins, Chloe Peterson, Taylor Negron, Tom Arnold, Tony Longo.

REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., June 15, 2001

Most kids' films these days seem to fall into one of two categories: shameless, animated marketing tools (Pokémon et al.) or cliché-encrusted, live-action morality tales featuring non-human sidekicks (Air Bud, the execrable Monkey Trouble). It's the rare exceptions -- like The Iron Giant and this film from El Paso native Hector Barron -- that prove that anyone in the industry is even aware there may be intelligent life existing below advertisers' prized 12- to19-year-old demographic. Real films for real kids are becoming more and more difficult to find; though The Ugly Kid is far from perfect, it's heartening to know that there are at least a few filmmakers who still consider their younger counterparts worthy of a good story that doesn't speak to them in the gibberish of marketing subterfuge. Todd Bosley is middle school-aged Lloyd, the title's “ugly kid,” who daily suffers the slings and arrows and verbal epithets of the cooler, snappier playground demons, chief among them the spiky-haired Storm (Higgins). At home with his single mom and younger brother Nathan (Elliott, himself a bit of a schoolyard lothario), Lloyd is outfitted with glasses, a deadly bowl-haircut only a mother could resist laughing at, and enough burgeoning neuroses to render him a pint-sized Woody Allen. There's no relief from his problems in the classroom either; a mediocre student, he takes to clowning to attract the attention of newly arrived, little red-haired girl Tracy (Parker). Lloyd promptly ends up relegated to a special ed class where he meets amiable pal Troy (Barrett) and the endearingly smitten Carla (Peterson). Presided over by a teacher with a fistful of neuroses of his own (Fast Times at Ridgemont High Mr. Pizza Guy Taylor Negron) and forced to endure school-sanctioned square-dancing lessons from P.E. behemoth Tony Longo (who looks and acts like he trundled in from a Coen Brothers' loud fat guy gag), Lloyd's pre-teen hellhole is disarmingly on-target and rife with the kind of minor terrors most adults are prone to forget once out of the pre-pubescent pack. Far and away the best bits in The Ugly Kid come from the young actors onscreen, as cohesive and realistic a bunch of misfits as you're likely to see outside of a real middle school. Lloyd's desperate attempts to fit in -- at one point he figures a pair of Oakley-esque shades might do the trick -- smack of personal experience on director Barron's part (although I frequently found myself flashing back to my own dismal experiences while trapped in the seven circles of pre-adolescence). To a one, the young actors are remarkable; the breakdown comes with the adults, who are generally portrayed as bizarre caricatures (the fat teacher, the roaring gym coach, the oddball special ed teacher) with few solid real-world reference points. Tom Arnold makes a cameo as a pal of Lloyd's who runs the local magic-shop -- and then unceremoniously vanishes midway through, leaving you to wonder if the character was edited out or simply vanished in a puff of smoke. The Ugly Kid also has its share of cringe-worthy moments where the comedy is somewhat broader than it ought to be, but in light of the fact that this is one kids film that doesn't treat its audience like a squadron of future superconsumers, the comic misfires can be overlooked.

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