Since American Pie reconfigured Porky's 20 years ago, the modern sex comedy has abided by a tacit formula. Call it the sweetness-to-raunch ratio. It would be completely unacceptable for comedies about woefully inexperienced dudes to be only about their single-minded pursuit of gratification, so it has to be cut with material about friendship or the tender feelings they can access in vulnerable moments. And age is the key factor: the younger the dudes, the more sweetness required. The 40-Year-Old Virgin can be as raunchy as it likes, but the STR ratio changes with American Pie and Superbad, which have many more scenes of teenage boys bonding over their shared ineptitude or treating girls with kindness when no one is looking.
So what to do with sixth-graders?
The correct answer would seem to be "nothing, please — try again in a few years at least," but the winning comedy Good Boys gets the STR ratio miraculously right. The thought of preteens swearing, porn-hunting and speculating wildly about what-goes-where, anatomically speaking, sounds more like horror than comedy, but Gene Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg, the writing team best known for its episodes of The Office, make it all seem like innocent fun. They place the guardrails early — a game of spin the bottle is as far as this will go, they assure us — and turn the quest for a kiss into a juice box jamboree of silly malapropisms, wild misbehavior and deep sexual confusion, sprinkled with real insight into a painful growing period.
A father-son heart-to-heart about masturbation in the opening scene evokes uncomfortable memories of Eugene Levy in American Pie, but Good Boys doesn't have sex on the brain. Or when it does, the comedy mostly comes from huge gaps in knowledge, as if the boys had been mishearing lunch-table braggadocio or falling asleep during health class. For them, interest in girls is like a switch that has just been flipped on and they're still adjusting to the light. Good Boys is about them padding around haplessly as changes upend their childhood and reconfigure their social lives — all within the space of a day.
Jacob Tremblay, the extraordinarily gifted young actor from Room, anchors the cast as 12-year-old Max, who wants nothing more than to smooch a girl he likes at a kissing party. He doesn't know how to kiss, however, so he enlists the help of his two best friends, Lucas (Keith L. Williams) and Thor (Brady Noon), to figure it out. "The Beanbag Boys," as they call their little posse, look for information on the Internet and practice on a CPR doll, but when those options don't pan out, they attempt to spy on a real couple to get higher-quality make-out pointers. When Max's plan to deploy his dad's expensive drone backfires, the Beanbag Boys strike out on a shaggy-dog adventure that involves a harrowing five-mile trip to the mall, raiding a frat house for "Molly" and a few dreaded sips of beer.
Stupnitsky and Eisenberg don't bother with a tightly constructed plot so much as a bunch of crazy nonsense with an endpoint, like Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle. That leaves them plenty of room for spontaneous gags and set pieces, like the boys crossing an eight-lane freeway, and little disruptions to the group dynamic, like Lucas' parents getting a divorce. (Retta, of Parks and Recreation fame, is particularly funny in gently reassuring the boy while shooting withering glances as his father.) The boys encounter extremely adult things like sex swings, BDSM gear and Internet pornography, but they can't identify any of it and most of it grosses them out.
Tucked within the filthy mayhem in Good Boys is a bittersweet thread about the perils of tweendom, when social groups start to break apart and re-form and best buddies inevitably grow at different speeds and away from each other. Given the film's short time frame, perhaps the rate of change is too accelerated, but Stupnitsky and Eisenberg understand the age and the specific torments that go along with it. For kids like Max, being a tween means having to think about sex before you've figured out how to unscrew a childproof cap.