The title of Good Boys is not a misnomer. The three 11-year-old heroes of Gene Stupnitsky’s new comedy are somewhat foul-mouthed, occasionally girl-crazy, and drawn into plenty of wild antics over the course of the movie—but every joke is about how bad these kids are at being bad. The film’s R rating is prominently displayed in promo materials, which also tout the movie’s association with raunchy comedies like Superbad, Neighbors, and Sausage Party. Good Boys indeed has its share of dirty jokes, but the best gag of all is that its protagonists don’t understand any of them.
The film follows three rising sixth graders who have to stay out of trouble for a day so they can attend a “kissing party” that will feature one of their crushes. There are several other subplots involving parents and older students that the trio bumble through, and while viewers will be able to appreciate the nuances of these story lines, the movie itself stays rooted in the kids’ innocent perspective. It’s a tough balance to strike, and the film largely manages it.
Good Boys is half-rooted in the frank, sometimes gross, sometimes biting comedy of the Judd Apatow era. But it’s also reminiscent of ’80s adventure fare like The Goonies or Stand by Me, tales filtered through the eyes of middle schoolers growing up and learning to deal with the real world. The biggest challenge for older viewers (who, thanks to the MPAA rating, will be the majority of the audience) is whether they want to put up with a movie centered on relatively clueless youngsters. Fortunately, there’s enough insight and silliness to make it worthwhile.
The lead troublemaker, Max, is played by Jacob Tremblay—another in a long line of preternaturally talented preteen actors (think Dakota Fanning and Haley Joel Osment) with astounding poise in front of the camera. Until now, Tremblay has mostly appeared in serious dramas like Room, The Book of Henry, and the treacly but effective Wonder, but his comic timing is on point as he plays Max as a wannabe know-it-all. Desperate to hang out with his crush, Brixlee (Millie Davis), at the cool kids’ party, Max enlists his best buds, Lucas (Keith L. Williams) and Thor (Brady Noon), to help him learn how to kiss, setting off a ridiculous chain of events that sees them ditching school and running around the suburbs for the day.
The stakes are extremely low in Good Boys, as they should be, given that the protagonists (who call themselves “the Beanbag Boys”) can’t even ride public transportation alone yet. But for Max, Lucas, and Thor, every situation feels urgent and potentially catastrophic. Early on, they steal a bottle of illicit pills from the high-school seniors Hannah (Molly Gordon) and Lily (Midori Francis), who are bent on reclaiming it before they go to a concert. As the girls chase them around the city, the boys assume they must be in the throes of a serious drug addiction, not just trying to have a good time on a Friday night.
Again and again, the trio confront a menace they don’t entirely comprehend (one anarchic set piece unfolds in a frat house), navigate through it using childish logic, and emerge from the experience basically none the wiser. Stupnitsky, who co-wrote the film with his collaborator Lee Eisenberg (they worked together on The Office and other TV shows), never lets reality come crashing down on the kids; even the heavier things they’re worried about (like Lucas’s parents, who are getting a divorce) tend to stay on the periphery.
But Good Boys does allow for some moments of education, which helped the movie click for me. The first two acts are standard madcap fare, though Hannah and Lily eventually point out something that Max and his pals haven’t yet considered—that elementary-school friends rarely stay together forever, and the bond of the “Beanbag Boys” may not be eternal. The movie doesn’t turn fully melancholy, but its ending is sweetly self-aware, highlighting the differences among its winsome protagonists and noting that the loss of one’s innocence has less to do with rude jokes and more to do with the ways people evolve as they mature. Had the film not taken an introspective turn, I still would have appreciated its skill with generating easy laughs. Happily, Good Boys has a little more to recommend it than gross gags.