Out of solidarity for Billy, I ate the worms.
—Tom Cavanagh, CelebrityWonder.com
“Puke has a mind of its own.” Issued by a kid named Plug (Blake Garrett), this assessment more or less summarizes the point of How to Eat Fried Worms, Bob Dolman’s ode to boys’ rituals of bonding and bullying. You can’t beat puke, though the effort might help to make you a man. An animated opening credits sequence illustrates just how this is true for 11-year-old Billy (Luke Benward), who is desperately unable to cope with the slightest provocation to his nervous system. Whether watching the dryer spin or his baby brother drool, Billy throws up. He and his parents just expect it. En route to a new home, Billy catches a glimpse of his little brother, Woody (Ty Panitz), with beany burrito all over his face. His dad (Tom Cavanagh) sighs and pulls the car over. Billy runs behind a tree to puke.
Though he’s never felt like “a normal person,” Billy wants exactly that. He misses his old friends, he hates the smell of his new bedroom, and he dreads the first day at his new school, “worst thing in the world,” when all eyes will make him feel decidedly abnormal, the misfit whose every move is under scrutiny.
That first day is full of the sort of provocation that makes Billy vomit. His worst fear is realized when he’s spotted by big bully Joe (Adam Hicks), who reads him instantly as an easy target. Billy turns this dynamic around almost by accident, reacting without considering consequences when faced with a crisis. In the cafeteria, he finds his thermos filled with worms—a prank engineered by Joe—and instead of puking, he is somehow able to maintain his cool. Indeed, Billy finds it in himself to pick up one of the worms and toss it at Joe. When it lands on the bully’s face, he screams, soliciting laughter from everyone in the room.
Well, that tears it. Now Joe—being weird and utterly predictable—must get even. (His meanness has a visible source in Worms, his bully of a big brother Nigel [Nick Krause], who calls him “Joey the Joke” and embodies how not to raise your boy.) That afternoon, Joe and his minions—including spiky-headed Twitch (Alexander Gould), the braces-afflicted Techno Mouth (Andrew Gillingham); and Donny (Alexander Agate), the brain—chase after Billy on their bikes until they catch him on an empty dirt road. The menace is palpable, and Billy responds with understandable but terrible judgment, agreeing to take Joe’s bet that he can’t eat 10 worms in one day without throwing up. Suddenly, Saturday looms like doomsday.
Based on Thomas Rockwell’s 33-year-old children’s book, the movie is visually pedestrian but full of awesomely cute kids, geeks and meanies alike. Even Billy’s dad (Tom Cavanagh) is pretty cute, his mouth turned up in a kind of perpetually tentative smile, advising his son on how to be the new kid even as he is also the new guy at work. “Take the initiative,” he tells Billy, go on up and shake hands. Billy sighs, understanding there is a limit to dad’s wisdom after all: “Kids don’t shake hands.” Alas, dad is undergoing his own initiation—a colleague invites him and mom to play tennis on the same Saturday Billy’s eating worms—and so he’s a bit distracted. As dad explains to mom (Kimberly Williams-Paisley), “It was the way he asked me: he was testing me” (sensible mom deals with both her nervous boys expertly, adoring them even as she knows their anxieties to be silly).
Dad’s appointed destiny means that Billy, now known as “Worm Boy” at school, is on his own for Saturday. Worse, he has to take care of Woody. (The little brother is yet another problem for Billy, Woody being the sort of naturally affable child who makes friends and impresses adults wherever he goes, even though, away from the adults, Billy sees him acting out his own bully scenarios against helpless creatures, drooling on ants and whomping the birdfeeder until it breaks.)
Billy gets some help on the Woody care front from Erika (Hallie Kate Eisenberg), the only kid at school who’s been nice to him. Also a misfit, being too “tall,” she so appreciates his situation and wants to see Joe’s authority challenged. She also provides a basic commentary throughout the film, observing the bonding/bulling behavior from a distance and sighing, “Boys are so weird.”
The worm eating is apt illustration. The first one downed is something of an ordeal, owing to the fact that that Official Worm Cooker Benjy (Ryan Malgarini) fries it up in lard on a park barbeque and Billy has to eat it on the run when the cops roll up to announce, “No barbequing!” But soon he’s winning sympathizers from among Joe’s “team,” as he seems to be willing himself to succeed. “Worm Boy stopped himself with mental power,” observes one admirer. “He told the vomit to stay inside.” Billy’s new buddies include Adam (Austin Rogers), lately a victim of Joe’s Death Ring (when he punches you with it, you’re infected with a poison that makes to bleed internally and slowly, so you’re dead by eighth grade). Fed up at last with trying to win Joe’s never-coming approval, Adam chooses to be on Billy’s team.
While the lessons about fitting in and being loyal and finding common ground when it seems unlikely are all good, the film’s primary focus is the mashing, cooking, and chewing of worms. Benjy goes so far as to show up with a blender, in which he combines spinach, broccoli, and green worms, and gives each concoction a name: the Barfmallow mixes worms with ketchup and marshmallow; the Burning Fireball combines hot sauce, tomato sauce, and high heat; and the Radioactive Slime Delight is almost elegant, a solo worm splatted inside a microwave, requiring a spatula to get it to Billy’s mouth. The more he’s able to keep the worms ingested, the more self-confident Billy becomes, to the point that he starts to believe his own hype: “Worm Boy” triumphant.
For its primarily 10-year-old audience, How to Eat Fried Worms maintains an appropriate focus, without making gestures toward adult viewers. The upchuck potential increases with every next recipe, even as the two opposing teams of boys share jokes and become friends—in spite of themselves. While they are briefly interrupted by the occasional adult (the principal [James Rebhorn] or a scary bait-shop lady [Jo Ann Farabee]), for the most part, the boys are on their own. And they remain suitably “weird.”