Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2019 SXSW Film Festival. Universal Pictures releases the film on Friday, August 16.
From the moment 12-year-old Jacob Tremblay mutters “Fuck yeah!” and prepares to masturbate to an avatar on his computer in the opening scene of “Good Boys,” the underlying appeal of this raunchy adolescent comedy comes together. The latest R-rated romp from comedy super producers Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg marks the directorial debut for “The Office” scribe Gene Stupnitsky, who co-wrote with writing partner Lee Eisenberg, and it follows many of the familiar beats of a story about neighborhood boys who just want to have fun. But that formula has never centered on sixth graders, and the entertainment value of watching them curse their way through lewd daylong adventure injects fresh entertainment value into a familiar routine. While the pace is spotty and not every joke lands, “Good Boys” manages to be adorable and twisted at the same time.
The trio of suburban pals at the center of the movie suggest the geeky adventurers of “Stand By Me” — or “Stranger Things,” for that matter — exported to lighter circumstances. As Max, Tremblay plays the most levelheaded member of a group of friends who call themselves “The Beanbag Boys” for no reason other than that they like beanbags. The kids spend all their time together, biking around the neighborhood and sitting together in the cafeteria immersed in the pedestrian challenges of day-to-day pre-teen life. But snippets of future of developments have already started to challenge that.
They’re only starting to understand the emotional challenges of growing up: Energetic Thor (Brady Noon) harbors musical theater ambitions, but the class bully gives him such a hard time about it that he decides to quit the school play; dopey Lucas (Keith L. Williams) contends with the news that his parents (who include a funny, if fleeting, Lil Rel Howery) are splitting up. “Good Boys” lands its most genuine moment when the kids sing “Walking on Sunshine” during the school music class, as tears stream down poor Lucas’ cheeks. For a movie that encourages loud cackling at constant one-liners, “Good Boys” also has its fair share of “awww” moments.
The boys’ personal hardships fade to the background so long as the boys hang together, but the future of their dynamic gets challenged once Max gets summoned to the cool kids’ table during lunchtime and receives an invitation to an upcoming “kissing party” that evening. “I have to ask my mom,” he says, but his real conundrum is breaking the news to his friends that they aren’t invited.
Instead, the giddy boys decide to skip school and hang out at Max’s house while his dad (Will Forte) takes a day trip. Uncertain how to proceed with the very idea of kissing, they embark on a series of misguided research attempts: googling porn (ew, gross), pretending with Max’s parents’ sex doll (they think it’s used for CPR practice), and finally, attempting to spy on a pair of next-door teens (Midori Frances and Molly Gordon) in the hopes that one of them might smooch her boyfriend. Max attempts this third approach by using his dad’s drone, but when the girls manage to confiscate the device, the Beanbag Boys find themselves in the midst of a dramatic showdown. And when Thor nabs the girls’ “vitamins” from their kitchen in the hopes of arranging a trade, he doesn’t realize that he’s actually stolen the molly they plan to take later. Not that the Beanbag Boys really understand what molly is — though the sweet-natured Lucas assumes it means the girls are addicts and expresses genuine concern for their well-being.
“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. Stupnitsky and Eisenberg have a knack for inhabiting their young protagonists’ mindset, as they bicker through their conundrum with charming naiveté. The filmmaking never coalesces 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!”
The 12-year-old Tremblay has been in no rush to find material to expand his range after his understated debut in “Room,” but “Good Boys” proves that he’s just as capable of an upper-middle class kid. However, “Good Boys” belongs to the entirety of its tight-knit ensemble: Williams, as Lucas, has a delightfully irreverent likability and deadpan talent that hints at even greater comic potential around the corner, while Noon has the rascally spirit of a very young Jonah Hill. While Thor attempts to sip beer with the middle-school bullies to prove he’s cool, Lucas casually munches on candies and shows little ambition for anything other than to support his friends.
The movie provides hilarious reminders of its miniature protagonists’ youth as their antics hit a series of snags, with the most endearing moment arriving when they have a fight over their situation that threatens the future of their friendship. The showdown arrives right on schedule, the way it has in countless buddy movies before it, but none of them end with the kids in question crying their eyes out.
The gimmick of “Good Boys” gets tiresome after a while, but not before the Beanbag Boys hurdle through several anarchic complications that extend well beyond their comprehension. Forced to recover the drugs for the girls holding the drone hostage, the boys face down a frat house full of obnoxious college kids, yielding a first-rate cartoonish brawl that involves a paint gun, paddle boards, and a bong (and the opportunity for an adolescent to explain the importance of consent to a college bro). Elsewhere, they uncover their parents’ sex toys and come to the conclusion that they’ve found weapons to defend themselves. Even as “Good Boys” settles into its unadventurous final act, it remains a fascinating cinematic gamble. The movie exists within the confines of the 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.
In its final moments, “Good Boys” arrives at a bittersweet epilogue, jumping ahead several months to the tune of Foreigner’s “I Want to Know What Love Is,” while contemplating whether the Beanbag Boys can maintain their bond beyond the bubble of middle school. It leaves the long-term future open-ended, but it’s fun to ponder the unique potential of this project in the long-term.
If the filmmakers really wanted to push their material to the next level, they’d commit to making a comedy variation on Michael Apted’s “7 Up” documentary series, following the Beanbag Boys into high school, college, and beyond, with updates every few years. On the other hand, allowing the kids to grow older would force them to conceive of coming-of-age movies you’ve seen before. “Good Boys” works as well as it does because it’s one that you haven’t.
“Good Boys” premiered at the 2019 SXSW Film Festival.