There are moments during the amiable teen comedy Fun Size when you may wonder if it’s based on an existing property, like a TV show or a comic book or something. (It was partly produced by Nickelodeon, and this has reportedly caused some concern given that it’s a PG-13 film in which a giant mechanical chicken humps a car full of teens.) Directed by Gossip Girl’s Josh Schwartz and written by The Colbert Report’s Max Werner, the film sometimes seems to assume prior knowledge on our part when introducing characters and situations. It has a certain no-nonsense briskness that suggests it knows it’s a teen movie and doesn’t want to waste time with the usual horseshit of telling us who's who and what their relationships are. Imagine that bit of mental jujitsu for a second: a movie that uses its very conventionality as an asset.
Set in Cleveland, Fun Size focuses on precocious, beautiful Wren (Victoria Justice, star of the Nick show Victorious), whose Halloween plans to attend hunky jock Aaron Riley’s party are hijacked when her party-girl mother (Chelsea Handler) takes off for a shindig of her own, leaving Wren in charge of her oddball, delinquent brother Albert (Jackson Nicoll). So instead of heading to a popular dreamboat’s bacchanal and upping their social standing with their sexy costumes, Wren and her friend April (Jane Levy) have to be dorks and go trick-or-treating with the young'uns. Things get out of hand, however, when Albert disappears, and the girls have to enlist the help of likable nerds Roosevelt (Project X’s Thomas Mann) and Peng (Osric Chao) to try and find him.
This is utterly disposable stuff, but it does have its moments. Director Schwartz has a lot of fun with the surreal color and pop of Halloween; this is a man who has studied his Meet Me in St. Louis. And Justice is a terrific performer with a concentrated, committed energy. You get the sense that both character and actress care about finding the little boy. (How refreshing to see someone in one of these teen movies who actually seems like she enjoys being there.) Along the way, we get some genuinely decent, surprisingly elaborate gags playing off the social anxiety of the average American kid: At one point, Wren and her friends find themselves stuck in a beat-up car in teen-heavy Halloween traffic as their broken radio blasts the decidedly uncool inspirational ballad “You Raise Me Up.” (“Oh no! Here comes the uplifting chorus!” one of them shrieks.)
Somewhere along the way, some studio executive probably referenced Fun Size as a "female Superbad," and the film at times plays not unlike a kid-friendly, X-chromosome variation of the Michael Cera–Jonah Hill classic. But therein lies the difference, and maybe the problem. Superbad was fueled by the nasty, borderline-sociopathic desires of the average American teenage boy; take those away, and what you're left with are a lot of disparate gags that raise erstwhile chuckles but ultimately feel somewhat aimless. You could swear that Fun Size wants to go there — it wants to be raunchier and more unhinged, and given its pedigree, we know it probably can. But for the sake of its intended audience, it pulls back. That’s probably the responsible thing to do. Still, it’s hard not to think that there’s a darker, funnier movie in there waiting to get out. In the meantime, we’ll always have the humping chicken.