When 'Good Boys' Behave Badly

'Good Boys' is a teen comedy with a twist. And it works, at least until the jokes start getting repetitive

Nettanel Slyomovics
Nettanel Slyomovics
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Keith L. Williams (left) and Jacob Tremblay in “Good Boys.”
Keith L. Williams (left) and Jacob Tremblay in “Good Boys.”Credit: Universal Pictures
Nettanel Slyomovics
Nettanel Slyomovics

In a short promo for “Good Boys,” the producer, Seth Rogen, is seen sitting with the film’s three young stars and explaining why they won’t be able to watch the picture they’re starring in. “Even though you can do it, you can’t watch yourselves do it,” Rogen says after rattling off a fair number of reasons for restricting the movie’s viewing age. “What if we did a family-friendly version of ‘Good Boys’?” one of the boys asks. “That would be four seconds long,” Rogen replies. The promo is staged, of course, but it conveys vividly the spirit of the film.

Twelve years after they wrote the script for “Superbad,” and eight after establishing a production company named for the Vancouver junior high where they met, Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg are a well-established Hollywood brand. In the past two years alone, the writers-directors produced five films and four television series, in which they didn’t hesitate to give creative artists an opportunity to try out new roles. The latest to join the list is Gene Stupnitsky, who makes his directorial debut with “Good Boys.” The screenplay was written by Stupnitsky with his regular writing partner Lee Eisenberg, with whom he worked on the American version of “The Office” and on the movie “Bad Teacher.”

The plot is launched with a scene that makes clear immediately which way the wind is blowing. Twelve-year-old Max (Jacob Tremblay) creates a feminine character in a computer game and is caught by his father (Will Forte) while starting to masturbate. In contrast to similar scenes in many teen movies, the humiliation stems precisely from the father’s pride in a son who is undergoing healthy sexual development.

In the face of parents like these, youthful rebellion assumes a different direction. The scene also prepares the ground for the new rift that forms in the group that Max has hung out with every day, without a break, since preschool. But now, at the beginning of sixth grade, with middle school already looming on the horizon, the threesome – Max, Thor (Brady Noon) and Lucas (Keith L. Williams) don’t yet understand what social and hormonal forces threaten them.

Appalling thought

The rift widens to crisis level when Max, who is already drowning in a tsunami of hormones that he doesn’t understand, is invited to a “kissing party” of the popular kids. The thought that he might have to spin a bottle and kiss a girl appalls him. The three actors suffer from a few problems, but faithfully express the mood of 12-year-olds lacking wisdom, judiciousness or a sense of proportion. The fear of a bad kiss is experienced as an existential threat on the scale of Chernobyl.

Max’s two friends are also bothered, but by other problems. Thor, who dreams of starring in a musical production to be staged by the class, yields to social pressure and pretends it’s of no interest to his fragile masculinity. Lucas gets an even more bitter taste of the real world when his parents inform him they’re getting a divorce.

In short, they decide to skip school and help Max learn how to kiss. When a first-time viewing of porn raises more questions than answers (“How many husbands does she have?” “Is this how every stepmother behaves?”), they steal a drone belonging to Max’s father in order to spy on two neighboring high-school girls. Their abject failure hurtles them into a chain of events that include obtaining a vial of MDMA, trying beer, a bike accident and a splendid simulated action scene in a student frat house.

The filmmakers are to be complimented at least for truth in advertising, besides which the three really are good boys. That understanding is the springboard for the funniest and most effective scenes in the movie. After all, children of 12 live in a bubble. Their physical world is small and confined, so a foray to a mall six kilometers away is described as a journey in the spirit of “Lord of the Rings,” certainly when they are prohibited from using public transportation.

More important, they live in a bubble of a total lack of understanding about the logic of the world of adults. Even the few among them who are inquisitive are nourished by partial, fragmented information, and are compelled to fill in the blanks themselves. Adults protect them by means of age restrictions and thus allow them to reach conclusions with the aid of snippets of knowledge that are censored and mediated, sprinkled with half-truths and blatant lies that arrive via bits and pieces of rumors along the lines of “I heard it from a cousin of a friend of my big brother, but it’s totally true.”

Drawing inspiration from teen movies such as Rogen and Goldberg’s “Superbad,” “Good Boys” sticks to the familiar narrative structure of those films, which are about friendship that faces a test on a wild night of partying on the last day of high school. The transition from 18-year-olds to 12-year-olds turns out to be entertainingly smooth, precisely because the boys are naive and innocent, whereas the world around them is adult and quite normal. Indeed, from their point of view, their day is no less insane than the night of the heroes of “Superbad” or the heroines of the excellent “Booksmart.”

When they get their hands on a little MDMA, they flee hysterically, because they’re truly convinced that the two high-school girls are junkies with withdrawal symptoms. Well, that’s what they learned from their surroundings. When a gang of tough guys pressure them to drink beer for the first time, they experience it as a fatal threat no different from Russian roulette.

But despite a collection of funny, touching moments, most of the humor that propels the plot rests on two foundations that are cheap but effective, up to a certain point: kids saying things they are not supposed to say, and kids doing things they are not supposed to do. The three protagonists fire numberless one-liners in every direction nonstop – at times the screenwriters assume that just breaking a taboo is enough to make people laugh. The director supplements the taboo-breaking with a very broad range of sex toys, constantly playing up the boys’ bewilderment as they conjecture what the toys are used for. A sex doll looks to them like a resuscitation doll, anal beads are taken for a charming bracelet with a bad smell, and so on – and on. In general, the multiple repetitive slapstick attests to a learning graph without a curve.

Friendship tested

The choice of the sixth grade instead of the senior year of high school succeeds in shaking up the formula without departing from it for a second. As with the teens who preceded them, the story is not in the kiss but in their friendship under the pressure of a critical test. The film’s sharpest moments arise from the occupation with this specific age, in which the physical and psychological changes take place at a different pace for each boy.

Max seems less developed than his friends, certainly compared with Thor, who takes pride in having no fewer than six public hairs. But even so, Max is ahead of his pals in his sexual development. The revelation that girls aren’t boring is exclusively his, whereas Thor prefers to act on the stage and Lucas likes to play with a console. They join Max’s journey toward his first kiss solely out of friendship, and that it morphs into total participation befits their age. It’s a journey that also puts their friendship to the test – after all, middle school is just around the corner, and it brings a new balance of forces and changing areas of interest.

Even though there are a number of humane, funny moments, such as crying at the wrong time (though it’s right for 12-year-olds), a feeling of burnout ensues when the nonstop jokes provoke a sense of déjà vu. But with a movie that runs for only 90 minutes, that feeling does not become completely dominant, so the viewer can enjoy a film that offers an original, if not very deep, idea. Beyond that, there’s a substantial segment of the population for whom sweet kids with a dirty mouth is more than enough for an entertaining comedy. It’s for them that this movie was made, and it’s done humanely.