Good Boys follows sixth graders Max (Wonder‘s Jacob Tremblay), Thor (Brady Noon) and Lucas (Keith L. Williams), as they decide to use a drone belonging to Max’s father to spy on a female neighbour. The purpose of this is to see some kissing, in order to get some tips ready for a party at which Max hopes to kiss his crush, Brixlee (Millie Davis). When the drone is taken by the girls on which they are spying, the boys need to race to recover it before Max’s father, who has expressly forbidden his son from touching the gadget, returns home from a business trip. Their day will see them cut classes and get caught up in drug deals, bike chases, deceiving the police, and multiple points of confusion over sex toys.
Watching Good Boys, the debut feature from Gene Stupnitsky – alumnus both of the US version of The Office and Stephen Merchant vehicle Hello Ladies (Merchant making an enjoyable cameo here) – immediately brought to mind the films from the Judd Apatow stable over the last dozen or so years. Superbad (Apatow produced) ran 113 minutes, The 40-Year-Old Virgin 116, Knocked Up a hugely excessive 129 minutes. By the time of This is 40 running times had reached a ridiculous-for-a-comedy 133 minutes. In a genre that benefits, in general, from brevity, the trend in comedies has been towards ever baggier, more indulgent running times. That Good Boys arrives at a tight 90 minutes is a good sign from the outset.
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The plot itself is throwaway. It’s difficult to describe in anyway that builds any anticipation, as it’s reflective of what a trio of 12-year olds are finding epically exciting in context of their day. The title of the film isn’t inaccurate: these are good boys and as such skipping school and tasting beer are huge events to them. Within the world of the film, this works perfectly – but it may make this film a tough sell: “come and see some kids not attend classes, and swear a bit”.
The casting of the three leads is perfect, however, both for their well-defined individual parts and for the pitch of the film as a whole. Tremblay plays like the second coming of Barret Oliver (1980’s child star), as a sweet natured presence captured by an actor with experience far beyond his years – he simply looks the most seasoned actor of the three. Noon is the good kid trying to play bad. A child who loves musicals and singing, trying to be bad-ass – and it not quite fitting. In his case Step Brothers, the 2008 Will Ferrell film, came to mind, as in both cases a character’s voice is hyped as an amazing talent, only to be nothing that special at all. In neither case is that joke overplayed either. Williams’ Lucas character is physically a child version of Craig Robinson (Hot Tub Time Machine), and is a compulsive truth teller, in a way the film successfully mines for several laughs.
Deciding to centre the story on three 12-year olds will give the film its biggest marketing headache, as many will simply bypass this for not understanding at whom it is pitched, or simply switching off at the sight of children in such material. As the central premise means that our leads are perceiving massive, life-changing importance in relatively low key events – if they don’t succeed, it will lead to a grounding for Max: that’s all – the studio is trying to promote a story that is, essentially, three kids avoid school and try to get a replacement for dad’s drone.
That we have three tweens leading this is, however, the film’s biggest strength. They are old enough to command the screen and deliver all dialogue naturally and with awareness – genuinely, all three are terrific – and also old enough to have reached an age that they’ve encountered a number of life – and sexual – concepts and terms, but young enough that they don’t fully understand them. Watching kids self-confidently mis-describe sexual practices is genuinely funny, however easy such a laugh may be. The confidence part being key here – this is not the humour of toddlers swearing: they sort of know what they are saying, and encountering, and that thinking they know is what makes this work so well. Their reaction to seeing porn – literally in the hope of getting kissing tips – is not remotely what we’d get with older lead characters. The repeating jokes around sex toys belonging to Thor’s parents all land.
From there it’s probably wise not to ruin any more of the jokes, but it’s fair to say all of the humour arising is born of sheer naivety and lack of life experience. We’ve not seen this before, as we’re usually watching 20-somethings playing teenagers trying to get laid. These kids don’t even fully understand what that is, and this gives the film such freshness. That the filmmakers have managed to find three distinctive, talented and natural young actors to deliver these performances is extraordinary. In fact, the standard is something that’s taken for granted within minutes; it’s easy to forget how bad most child acting performances are.
From the embarrassing dad trope we saw in American Pie, to a clear Bowfinger homage/rehash, Good Boys references many films and set pieces we’ve seen before. It does this, however, with inventive shot-making and, in places, whimsical sound design (with the sudden appearances of Thor’s sister accompanied by sound more suited to horror). The film is slightly undermined by going a little too touchy-feely in the final act, and trying to add feelings and life lessons to a work that just didn’t need it. It’s likely to die at the box office too, as adult audiences don’t generally want to watch kids leading films. The first hour of Good Boys is, however, the freshest example of this genre that we’ve seen in over a decade; and tighter than almost anything produced in its noughties heyday. Most importantly, it’s genuinely, and repeatedly, laugh out loud funny, and that’s the most important factor in any comedy.