Take a look at virtually any piece of Good Boys’ advertising and you will walk away knowing two things: The movie’s stars are young boys, and it’s super R-rated. Even the poster places the film’s rating square in the center. It’s a clean marketing hook for a dirty movie, one that very well could prove effective for Universal this weekend — even if the concept of foul-mouthed kiddos hasn’t felt transgressive since South Park hit cable in 1997.
Good Boys just barely elevates that premise into something coherent, overcoming its repetitive gags with impressive chemistry between the three leads and an unexpectedly poignant finale.
Jacob Tremblay (Room) leads the good-boy trio as Max, who’s crashing headfirst into adolescence with a severe crush on a popular sixth-grade girl. His buddies are the spiky-haired Thorin (Brady Noon), a kid torn between his desire to look like a middle-school rebel and crushing it in show choir, and Lucas (Keith L. Williams), who has internalized every corny anti-bullying and drug PSA shown in school and made it his credo. Surprisingly, the film’s title is not ironic and signifies its greatest strength; These are nice, well-intentioned kids, and each of their performances feels authentic enough to shine through the shaky dialogue with which they’re saddled.
Simply put, Good Boys’ first two acts fluctuate between cringeworthy and watchable. Nearly every joke has the same punchline, which mainly comes down to young kids misunderstanding words like “blowjob” and thinking sex toys are just regular toys. Judging by the uproarious laughter from the crowd at my promo screening, you would think a 12-year-old boy using anal beads as nunchucks represented the dawn of a new golden age in comedy, so take it with a grain of salt when I admit I found it a tad uninspired.
The second act, where the boys cut class to prepare for their first middle-school “kissing party,” gives the narrative some much-needed momentum, even if actual jokes are still missing. Comedically, Good Boys peaks during a sequence in a frat house, with the three forced to buy MDMA from a comically overconfident bro. Without spoiling things, it essentially ends like a tween version of the Alfred Molina scene in Boogie Nights (minus any of the filmmaking craft) and actually manages to push the characters’ arcs forward in ways many of the other comedic beats fail to do.
So color me surprised when the theatre started getting a bit dusty during the movie’s final stretch, providing a few thoughtful insights about the brevity of childhood friendships, which are usually forged by proximity and little else. Even with the strong dynamic between its leads, director / co-writer Gene Stupnitsky deserves credit for challenging that relationship with the disheartening realization that the three may be headed in socially different directions. That angle has been approached in countless high-school dramas, but that concept seems even truer for the preteen age, when one first learns that not every friendship is meant to last.
In a year where audiences already received (and ignored) Booksmart, one of 2019’s best films, and with a narrative premise identical to this one, Good Boys feels pretty damn disposable. Still, like Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut, this has its heart in the right place, and if it can stop even one person from going to see The Art of Racing in the Rain or The Kitchen this weekend, then that has to count for something.