The hook of Good Boys, the latest odyssey from Hollywood on comic adolescent mischief, is that kids behaving badly are, for once, truly kids. The latest R-rated romp from comedy super producers Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg marks the directorial debut from The Office writer Gene Stupnitsky, who co-writes this with Lee Eisenberg, and it follows the usual beats of an R-rated parade of hormonal mishaps, drug-related foibles, and foul-mouthed banter for a story about neighborhood boys who just want to have fun. Except that formula has never centered on sixth graders, and the entertainment value of watching them curse their way through a vulgar daylong adventure injects a freshness into a familiar routine.
Of the film’s centric group (they refer to themselves as the “Beanbag Boys”), Max (Jacob Tremblay) is the most nominally mature, at least biologically speaking; unlike his childhood companions, he’s entered the early agony of puberty, and spends a lot of his waking hours falling for a classmate (Millie Davis). Thor (Brady Noon) is going through changes of a more social sort, feeling pressured to abandon his interest in musical theater for cooler pursuits, especially after a failure of after-school nerves earns him the potentially catching the nickname “Sippy Cup.” Rounding out the trio is the painfully sheltered and rule-obsessed Lucas (Keith L. Williams), cooping with the sudden, crushing revelation that his parents are getting a divorce.
The preteen stars together develop an organic and winningly uncool chemistry, that shared language of misfit middle-school camaraderie. (Out of the three, Williams scores the biggest laughs as the group’s alarmed moral center.) Their chemistry helps carry Good Boys through the rougher patches of its ambling plot, which centers on a “kissing party” (of which is often treated with a swell of horror-movie strings each time its mentioned) that Max has been invited to. With his two friends by his side, Max fears that he won’t know how to kiss — an anxiety that sends the three into a spiral of farcical complications involving his dad’s prized drone, a collection of sex toys, and some ecstasy pills the trio ends up stealing as leverage in their conflict with teenage girls (Molly Gordon and Midori Francis) from the neighborhood. (In one of the film’s more inspired choices, these ostensible villains approach their new, tiny-tween nemeses with a mixture of mild amusement and casual annoyance.)
Good Boys is just revving its engine with this vulgar take on a Little Rascals installment when the kids wind up careening across town in a mad dash to recover the drone and figure out what to do with the stolen drugs. In the process, the movie settles into a stream of mostly satisfying vignettes, hurdling through an awkward encounter with a baffled police officer, a slapstick attempt to cross the freeway, and recurring gags about child-proof locks. Sputnitsky and Eisenberg have a knack for inhabiting their young protagonists’ mindset, as they bicker through their conundrum with a charming naiveté. The filmmaking never merges with the same degree of cleverness offered up by the main conceit, but the screenplay excels at conveying the boys’ inability to grasp the adult language to describe their situation. “I’m not a feminist!” Max says as the pair discuss his crush. “I love women!”
Last year, Eighth Grade found poignancy and humor in its stressful time period: that purgatorial perch between childhood and adulthood. Watching Good Boys, you realize what a difference two years makes. Both in stature and mindset, Max and his friends are still very much kids, mostly uncorrupted by the growing preoccupations and desires of teenage life. Good Boys finds humor not in the spectacle of children passing adult barriers, but in them obliviously maintaining their innocence even when getting mixed-up in a frat-house drug deal or stumbling upon a sex doll. Yet, the gimmick of Good Boys does get tiresome after a while, especially the unadventurous final act, but it still remains an interesting cinematic gamble. The movie exists within the confines of kids’ worldview, as the cameras remain at their eye-level, and their limited understanding of the world around them serves as an inspired feature-length punchline.
Good Boys, when compared to other risqué misadventures of teens movies, most closely resembles a kind of JV tryout for Superbad (the breakout hit for Rogen and Goldberg), down to its modestly affecting emotional through-line: an acceptance of the fact that childhood friendships, forged out of proximity and convenience, aren’t always destined to last forever. So sure, Good Boys might think it has a bigger heart than it actually does and not every joke lands, but through the solid rapport of its three leads it remains an intriguing cinematic gamble.