The tale of three sixth-graders F-bombing their way through a series of adolescence-threatening adventures en route to a nerve-wracking kissing party, “Good Boys” (boring title) is located at the intersection of “Superbad” and “Baby’s Day Out.”
The film rests on the comic potential of kids swearing like it’s a “South Park” audition. But the three at the center of what passes for the story find themselves on the cusp of a new, uncertain phase of life. This saves “Good Boys” from its own weaknesses. For every lazy, derivative setup involving kids sprinting across six lines of highway traffic, or mistaking sex-toy paraphernalia for nunchucks or a necklace, there’s a nice turn of phrase in the script by first-time director Gene Stupnitsky and co-writer Lee Eisenberg, who worked on “The Office” and, less amusingly, “Bad Teacher” and “Year One.”
Raised, apparently, on films like “Superbad,” the 12-year-olds are mostly careful with each other’s egos and feelings, even when they’re screaming. They’re woke in ways the older “Superbad” boys, from the Paleolithic era of 2007, never were. The basic tenets of sexual consent, even if it’s just the kissing stage, have been nicely drilled into the brain pans, though the better jokes come from their age-appropriate lack of experience and knowledge. One kid explains to another that a nymphomaniac is someone who has sex “on land and sea.” Another gets flustered when he’s called a misogynist: “I’ve never massaged anyone!”
Sweet, crafty Max (Jacob Tremblay of “Room”), sweet, guileless Lucas (Keith L. Williams) and rough-around-the-edges musical theater kid Thor (Brady Noon) have been fast friends for years. Max is nursing a crush on Brixlee (Millie Davis), shown fleetingly in a shyly adoring medium shot. She barely speaks; one of these days, two men will write a comedy about boys, and the object of someone’s affection will actually get something to say.
There’s a kissing party planned at the home of a forbiddingly cool kid (Izaac Wang). Max and Thor, though not so much Lucas, embark on a research mission on the mechanics and how-tos. They deploy a drone camera owned by Max’s father (Will Forte) to spy on a neighbor girl going out with a layabout college boy. The drone is destroyed; the boys must replace it, fast. There’s a drug-buy subplot involving MDMA, aka molly, sought by the manipulative older girls played by Midori Francis and Molly Gordon. They’re good, and “Good Boys” has the good sense to use them for some third-act sympathetic wisdom.
Venturing into a sinister-looking frat house to buy the drugs, the trio end up in a melee with the older boys. After so many Seth Rogen/Evan Goldberg-produced projects celebrating the glories of weed, it’s strange to see “Good Boys” pull a moralistic switcheroo and treat stoners as antagonists, not role models.
Director Stupnitsky lacks finesse and an eye for framing at this stage of his directorial career. He is, however, well-attuned to catching moments on the fly: a quick glimpse of Lucas and Thor playing patty-cake, for example, reminding us they are still kids. The sharpest material tends to be the least crass, as when Max (who seems to have dirt on everyone’s parents) ends an argument with a simple yet unpredictable: “Everyone knows your mom plagiarized her cookbook.”
★★½ “Good Boys,” with Jacob Tremblay, Keith L. Williams, Brady Noon, Millie Davis, Izaac Wang, Will Forte, Midori Francis, Molly Gordon. Directed by Gene Stupnitsky, from a screenplay by Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg. 90 minutes. Rated R for strong crude sexual content, drug and alcohol material, and language throughout — all involving tweens. Opens Aug. 16 at multiple theaters.