In kid years, I never wore a helmet. I never saw any other kid wear a helmet, at least for biking or skateboarding or even hockey. We played pickup football without helmets. I’m not sure helmets even existed before 1983, except for batters’ helmets, motorcycle helmets, and the kind you wore when you were playing organized football. Injuries to the brain apparently were not something anyone worried about, but then again all we did in our spare time was watch Mork & Mindy and Manimal, so it’s not like we needed to think.
The engaging new comedy Good Boys follows a cohort of sixth-grade kids, too young to remember the George W. Bush administration, who came out of the womb wearing helmets. Their favorite things include dorky fantasy games, grilled-cheese sandwiches, and anti-drug speeches, and they are easily foiled by the child-proof cap on a bottle of vitamins. Fertile ground, and largely unexploited for comedic purposes: Everyone talks about the loss of innocence, but nobody ever talks about innocence regained. Sometimes it does happen. Look around you. The “epic rager” in this movie, fittingly, is a sweet little game of spin-the-bottle held in the beautifully decorated basement of a comfy suburban home.
It’s lovely that kids today are trained to put on crash helmets every time they leave the house, but it is also pretty funny. “We should hydrate,” says one kid in the movie. “We’ve been biking for almost 14 minutes.” I do believe that if, in 1979, there had appeared in my junior high school a roaming band of goody-goodies calling themselves an anti-bullying squad and wearing yellow vests, so many wedgies would have been administered to them that they would today remain unable to have children. Today’s imperative to swaddle our youth in physical and emotional protective gear creates some amusing gaps between the boys’ glorious innocence and odd details of life such as the baffling array of their parents’ sex toys they keep encountering. They don’t even grasp what tampons are for: “Girls stick them up their buttholes to stop babies from coming out,” is one explanation.
Good Boys wasn’t written or directed by Seth Rogen, but it has that Rogen feel (and he is one of the producers). This might be the first movie I’ve ever heard of that slapped the R-rated logo in the middle of its poster to make it the principal point of attraction: Naughtiness awaits! Now go get your mom to buy you a ticket.
Best friends Max (Jacob Tremblay), Lucas (Keith L. Williams), and Thor (Brady Noon) are sixth-graders on an odyssey that involves a bottle of Molly pills they stole from some teen girls, a kissing party, several daring sips of beer, and a hard-to-control drone. As Anton Chekov once said, if a movie opens with a parent leaving on a business trip who warns his 12-year-old son, “Don’t touch my drone,” the drone will be touched. The reason the friends need the drone is to spy on neighbors so they can figure out the mysterious process known as “kissing,” and they call themselves the Bean Bag Boys, which is so adorable it might as well have been used in a 1940s movie about juvenile delinquency.
Gene Stupnitsky, a longtime writer for The Office whose directorial debut this is, and his co-screenwriter Lee Eisenberg have given the three mates a purely sixth-grade blend of horniness, ignorance, and mortification. Max wants to kiss his crush from school. Thor has acquired the gruesome nickname “Sippy Cup” after turning down a dare to sip a beer (the record, held by the local cool kid, is three sips; everyone knows four can’t be done), while Lucas has just learned his parents are splitting up, albeit so amicably that it’s obvious he’ll be fine.
Good Boys is so thin on plot that, even at 90 minutes, things feel a bit stretched. And it’s not as funny as Superbad, of which it is a tweener isotope. Some bits make no sense whatsoever, such as a trip to a frat house. But it’s got lots of quotable lines and a surfeit of disarming wackiness, such as when Stephen Merchant pops up in a business deal to buy a much sought-after card for the fantasy game Ascension but instead buys a CPR dummy to serve as his next, and possibly first, girlfriend. The mere sight of him immediately arouses suspicion: “I’ve never seen anyone who looks more like a child molester,” they tell him, and because this is Stephen Merchant we’re talking about, this is a fairly on-target joke. (Eisenberg and Stupnitsky were writers for Merchant’s hilarious and underrated HBO series Hello Ladies.)
There’s no chance we’ll ever stop fretting about our kids, but considered from their point of view, things look pretty secure. The boy whose parents are getting divorced is worried not about the kind of lasting trauma that seemed to afflict every movie adolescent in the 1970s and 80s, but about whether Taco Tuesdays will continue. A boy who needs a nasty insult to hurl comes up with this: “Everyone knows your mom plagiarized a cookbook!” The title of Good Boys is meant to be ironic, but the harder these kids try to be bad, the more endearing they are.