I can still remember the first time I watched South Park. Having reached the mountain top of elementary school that others dubbed “the fifth grade,” it was easy to feel worldly while viewing a raunchy cable cartoon where eight-year-olds cursed like sailors. Yeah, you would think, that’s pretty much life on the playground, right? This blur of reality and how grade school kids perceive reality was a nightmare for parents of that era (like all other South Park addicts, it was banned in my house). Twenty years later, many a young household will face similar apprehension when the appealingly filthy Good Boys has its say at the multiplex.
Not at all coincidentally like a South Park adventure come to life, Good Boys is a taboo-pushing comedy about young kids saying the darndest things, many of which could not be printed in newspapers or repeated on broadcast television. Aiming to shock by design, director Gene Stupnitsky and his co-screenwriter Lee Eisenberg have crafted an outrageous R-rated comedy about childhood that, while ostensibly for adults, will also play well with kids in the same age group as its stars. However, the reason it truly works isn’t because it’s destined to cause much handwringing, but because like all childhood fancies, there’s a clean innocence underlining even its dirtiest thoughts; it has the unshakable tenor of truth spoken by angels with (very) dirty faces between all the four-letter words. It also helps that more often than not, it’s quite hilarious, even as you realize the direction of these kids’ lives before they do.
Essentially a simple adventure movie about three friends at the tender crossroads of childhood and adolescence, Good Boys is perhaps more honest than most coming-of-age stories about killer clowns, upside-down aliens, or even finding a dead body on the railroad tracks. Rather Max, Lucas, and Thor (Jacob Tremblay, Keith L. Williams, and Brady Noon) just want to go to their first middle school party where they might actually kiss a girl. The need is even more urgent since their newly minted sixth grade careers had a bad start when they failed to drink a single sip of beer without gagging (the class record is an impressive three sips).
To prepare for the big day, Max might’ve, sorta, kinda, just accidentally lost his father’s drone… while trying to spy on the two college girls down the block (Molly Gordon, Midori Francis). The lads wanted to learn how to kiss but instead have their drone taken away by the young women as punishment, and as revenge, the self-described “Beanbag Boys” swipe the girls’ backpack, thus becoming unwitting drug mules for the ecstasy inside it. What follows is a low-stakes odyssey with the most life-altering weight for the three friends who, in an attempt to get to the party and avoid being grounded, will evade cops, skip school, and eventually go to war with a local fraternity. Along the way, they learn a lesson about growing up and growing apart too.
Decidedly uninterested in reinventing the wheel, Good Boys knows its appeal is primarily in offering the same type of gregarious bro-fest chuckles of other films from the wheelhouse of its producers Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg. Like Rogen and Goldberg’s This is the End, and most aptly Superbad, this is a film about male friendships challenged by debauchery—at least by sixth grade standards—and learning that life might be bigger than fraternal concerns.
Small in scope, it nonetheless has been a winning formula, and more importantly is acutely aware of that moment in most young peoples’ lives where they realize their best friend in first grade may not be their BFF in seventh. Unlike, say, trying to make an oddball romantic pairing work by simply turning Rogen’s love interest into another dude who also incredulously happens to be a woman Secretary of State (a la fellow SXSW alum Long Shot), Good Boys doesn’t have to bend over backwards to make its concept work. It knows its audience remembers middle school awkwardness and it knows how to find something oddly comforting in that shared discomfort.
As the triumvirate of fidgeting lads, Tremblay, Williams, and Noon have an amusing chemistry too. Stupnitsky gets a lot of mileage out of Tremblay’s angelic countenance. Previously the sweet innocent in Room, the cognitive dissonance is wide in seeing the same kid trying to lock his bedroom door in an opening sequence straight out of American Pie or, in cleverer moments, use a paintball gun to threaten frat bros who won’t cough up the molly he needs to buy a new drone. Williams, meanwhile, has a natural naivety and warmth that probably gives the Beanbag Boys just enough innocence to get away with risking becoming a band of degenerates—although almost as a correction from a legion of similar R-rated comedies where the boys treat girls as objects (including to a degree Superbad), these dudes are refreshingly presented as part of a generation raised to be more Woke than those who grew up on, say, Animal House or Caddyshack. It cannot be overstated what an applause line it is when Lucas reminds his friends that even if they play spend the bottle, the girls must give consent first.
The general good vibes of the film are at their grooviest though when the trio in its tête-à-tête with the college co-eds. A scenario that could’ve been a cartoon gag, this conflict between generations and genders is savvy enough to encapsulate the appeal of Good Boys beyond the curse words. Ultimately, we don’t really want to see children in a Superbad situation, and they never really are except when at their most oblivious while dealing with actual teenagers and young adult problems. For all their delinquency, these kids still think four sips of beer is their moon shot and kissing a girl would be equivalent to landing on Mars. They make you laugh because for all their attempts to sound mature (thus highlighting their immaturity), they have no idea what “adulting” is, even as they’re in a movie meant for adults. Hence their friendship’s eventual strains being depicted with the reverence of going through a separation or divorce has an endearing ridiculousness to it.
Good Boys is an effective laugher because the situations are amusing in their R-rated familiarity, but the protagonists are not. The film remembers that they are still harmless kids who, like all children, think they’re more grown-up than they are. Being able to thread that while putting them in raunchy hijinks allows the film to get away with hitting every well-played beat of the bro-movie. Except the formula’s typical man-children are actual children here, and thereby infinitely more delightful to watch behave childishly. Parents are going to hate it.
Good Boys premiered at SXSW on March 11 and will open nationwide on Aug. 16.
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