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by Michael Bowen & r & & r & How to Eat Fried Worms & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & A & lt;/span & t a party once -- on a dare, and partly to impress a girl -- I chewed and swallowed six live moths. Big green juicy ones, more like grasshoppers.


The girl wasn't impressed -- in fact, she turned as green as the moths -- but I figure my party stunt qualifies me to pass judgment on the gross-out contest for 10-year-old boys that is How To Eat Fried Worms.


The disgusting stuff is what all the fourth-grade boys are going to be shouting about while skateboarding away from the multiplex. What they won't realize is how the worms are just a cover for some advice about bullying, friendships and self-reliance.


Fried Worms begins with the local bully arm-twisting the new kid in town into trying some new cuisine: worms fresh out of the mud, worms fried in lard, worms cooked in jalapeno glop, worms microwaved and exploded and licked off oven walls. The bet is that he can't eat 10 of them in a single day. (Big deal. I could do that.)


But if you can get past the sickening details -- half-chewed worms dangling out of overstuffed mouths are the least of it -- this movie offers some reassurances. The world's a confusing place for kids, so sometimes they lash out by being cruel to each other; bullies can be insecure, too; sometimes the best way to defend yourself is just to fight back. Not exactly newsflashes, but writer/director Bob Dolman has the good sense not to make such themes the main course. First we have an appetizer to enjoy: worms flamb & eacute;.


As the new kid, Luke Benward (who had a small part in Because of Winn-Dixie) is as pleasant and undemanding as the movie around him. His Billy is convincingly self-assertive, but with worms wiggling out of his mouth, he relies too much on bobbing eyebrows to indicate impending nausea. Hallie Kate Eisenberg (now grown up from the little girl with dimples whose voice was dubbed down low in a series of Pepsi commercials) provides Billy with snippets of nonconformist wisdom: Why does he have to earn his self-respect by eating worms? "Boys are so weird," she sighs. One little scene-stealer is Alexander Gould (the voice of Nemo) as an oddball named Twitch. Even the bully (Adam Hicks) is freckle-faced.


Good as the kid actors usually are, they sometimes lapse into stagy over-acting like... well, poor kid actors -- and Dolman, by depending on too many close-ups, doesn't do them any favors. His screenplay also strains too hard in having Billy's father (Tom Cavanagh, Ed) undergo the same kind of hazing rituals at the office that his son endures at elementary school.


But in the end, Billy makes friends, gets the girl and discovers self-seteem. Now he'll have a story to tell that will win him some serious playground respect. And never once does he hurl.


In other words, his story works out better than my party stunt did. Shoulda ditched the moths and gone with the worms. Girls love that kind of stuff.

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