Lee Eisenberg and Gene Stupnitsky’s edgy tween comedy finds an unexpected sweetness among the swears.
“Stop treating us like kids,” pleads 12-year-old Max (Jacob Tremblay) at several points throughout Good Boys. “We’re tweens. We know how things work.” That mindset lies at the core of Gene Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg‘s (The Office) riotously funny, surprisingly sweet new comedy about a trio of foul-mouthed tots on an adolescence-defining adventure. As a sixth-grade riff on Superbad (on-brand for Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen, who serve as producers), it’s pleasantly diverting; as a showcase for three stellar young talents that couches its edgy humor in a disarmingly sweet innocence, it’s a wonderful surprise.
It’s the first day of sixth grade for Max and the rest of the “Bean Bag Boys” — numbering among them Max’s childhood best friends, musical-loving risktaker Thor (Brady Noon) and dorky worrier Lucas (Keith L. Williams) — and already they’re beset with changing hormones and the risky dynamics of middle school. Max, now feeling the first stirrings of puberty, wants nothing more than to plant a smooch on cute girl in class Brixlee (Millie Davis); Thor, meanwhile, is torn between wanting to audition for Rock of Ages and proving his coolness to popular kid Atticus (Chance Hurtsfield). On top of that, Lucas is reeling from the news that his parents (Retta and Lil Rel Howery) are getting a divorce.
So when fellow cool kid Soren (Izaac Wang) invites Max to a “kissing party” at his house, he asks the Bean Bag Boys for help getting pointers on how to suck face, which eventually leads to them getting entangled with two high school girls (Molly Gordon and Midori Francis), Max’s dad’s drone, and some accidentally stolen Molly.
The details of the Bean Bag Boys’ misadventures aren’t important; what is important is the shocking alacrity with which Good Boys captures that strange combination of vulgarity and innocence that embodies middle school life. As kids, we’re always in a hurry to grow up; throw that on top of unfettered access to the Internet (see the uproarious sequence in which the Boys look up “P…O…R…B”) and social media, and the tweens of Good Boys throw out casual swears like, well, like Seth Rogen characters. We took relish in cursing like grownups with our friends, and talking about sex and drugs like we knew anything about it; Good Boys captures that shaky performance of adulthood expertly.
But the genius of Eisenberg and Stupnitsky’s script (Stupnitsky directs, in his feature film debut) is that it never veers from the Boys’ perspectives, and highlights their imperfect understanding of such adult matters. The Boys may talk a tough game, but they don’t know what they’re talking about. They gather around and dare each other to see how many sips they can take from a stolen beer; they treat teenagers trying to score Molly as irredeemable drug addicts; they use the word “blowjob” as a verb. Much ballyhoo has been made of how ‘raunchy’ Good Boys is — see below one of the many red-band trailers that not even Jacob Tremblay can watch, you guys — but the kids’ wide-eyed naivete makes even their gleeful playing on one parents’ sex swing feel downright adorable. The kids aren’t wise beyond their years, and that’s what makes their exploits so watchable.
It helps, certainly, that Good Boys falls on the shoulders of some incredibly capable young actors. Tremblay’s the known quantity of the group, hot off the back of Room, and he’s delightful here — his pipsqueak voice absolutely sells the overconfident bluster of sick burns like “everyone knows your mom plagiarized her cookbook!” But it’s Noon and Williams who are especially wonderful surprises; Noon manages to play the loudmouth Jonah Hill goofball without losing an ounce of childlike vulnerability, and Williams’ tightly-wound virtuousness makes for some of the film’s funniest moments. Stupnitsky’s camera films the proceedings with workmanlike formalism, though he does have stellar command of sight gags, and the kids are aided with great little cameo performances from Sam Richardson (as a cop too exhausted from third-shift to take the extremely-guilty Bean Bag Boys’ behavior seriously) and Stephen Merchant (as a creepy buyer for Lucas’ Magic: The Gathering card).
The kids aren’t wise beyond their years, and that’s what makes their exploits so watchable.
In amongst gags where the kids shoot up a frat house with paintball guns and play Frogger across a freeway, Good Boys manages to tie its disparate elements together into a bittersweet parable about how our friendships change as we grow. As one character notes, the Bean Bag Boys became best friends not because they gravitated toward each other, but because they were neighbors and their parents were friends. As they grow up and grow apart, their conflicting needs cause some interesting wrinkles in their respective group dynamic, especially as the loaded social dynamics of the kissing party grow ever closer.
All in all, Good Boys manages to flirt with adolescent raunch without forcing its young characters to grow up too fast. There’s no big chase, and they don’t get in more trouble than they can handle; the joy is in watching these kids treat the smallest setbacks — being grounded, kissing a girl, not hanging out with their friends as much — like the most important things in the world. After all, we felt the same when we were their age. Jokes about using anal beads as nunchucks and confusing your parents’ RealDoll for a CPR simulator aside, Good Boys manages to tell a tale about the other, more subtle ways we lose our innocence – like the fact that our best friends won’t be best friends forever.
Good Boys practices kissing on a “CPR doll” in theaters August 16.