Several small moments set "Diary of a Wimpy Kid" apart from, and above, the usual family movie. One scene starts out feeling all too familiar: Middle-schooler Greg Heffley, having wronged a friend, asks his mom for advice. Her response: "It's our choices that make us who we are."
Wise words - but totally useless to a sixth-grader foundering in a sea of social pressures. Greg's choice winds up being completely, hilariously wrong, and any viewer of any age will likely feel a gut-deep pang of empathy.
"Diary of a Wimpy Kid," based on the first book in Jeff Kinney's bestselling series, is exaggerated and cartoonish, but always real and refreshingly honest. That may be due to Kinney's hands-on involvement; he is the film's executive producer. The wimpiness alluded to here is not just physical but moral, too.
The premise is simple: Greg (Zachary Gordon) is entering his first year of middle school, and "cool" is his new priority. Unfortunately, his longtime friend Rowley (Robert Capron, stealing the show) doesn't get it: He's a pudgy embarrassment who still uses the word "play" instead of the preferred term "hang out." Still, it's Greg who finds difficulty fitting in, enduring daily humiliations at the hands of bigger boys, taller girls and his own punk-rock brother (Devon Bostick, excellent as a teenage smirk with legs).
Director Thor Freudenthal ("Hotel for Dogs") wisely sticks to the script, which, despite four pairs of hands, feels coherent and consistent. The hardest lesson Greg learns is also the most obvious, and it's a testament to the movie that it sneaks up on him, and on you.