During a moment of reckoning for American men, a film called “Good Boys,” written, directed, and produced by men, might sound like a defensive plea.
As revelations of wrongdoing have piled up over the last two years, reactionary pundits (and, in one famous case, a family court judge) have contorted themselves to safeguard the innocence of men. “These allegations will ruin lives,” the defenders have claimed. “Won’t you think about the good ones?”
Gene Stupnitsky’s directorial debut, which follows a trio of sixth-grade boys to their first “kissing party,” is a product of the #MeToo era, but it doesn’t just re-hash the arguments we’ve already heard. A charming study of masculinity and friendship, the movie makes the case that “goodness” is a measure of how boys perceive themselves in relation to others. It may be another addition to the “adolescent party odyssey” line — think “Superbad” (2007) and “Booksmart” (2019) — but “Good Boys” yields something fresh.
The story begins, as so many do, with a boy who wants to kiss a girl. Max (Jacob Tremblay) is almost certain that Brixlee (Millie Davis) is his future wife, and he knows that she’ll be at the popular-kids’ party.
The obstacle isn’t a lack of interest on Brixlee’s part but the crippling uncoolness of Max’s clique, The Beanbag Boys. Lucas (Keith L. Williams) has an endearing but pathological fear of trouble, Thor (Brady Noon), a pudgy theater kid with an earring, wants to focus on musical auditions, and none of the Beanbag Boys knows how to kiss.
The boys’ attempt to learn how to smooch before the party devolves into a series of — you guessed it — wacky hijinks. The Beanbag Boys ditch school, sprint through highway traffic, and steal MDMA, among other things. The substance of the movie lies with the three best friends, who try to understand and express their love for one another amid the torrid social dynamics of sixth grade.
Save for some cheap gags involving Thor’s parents’ sex toys, the script is a delight. The kids parrot things their parents say (“Everyone knows your mom plagiarized her cookbook,” Max yells at a schoolyard bully) but some things get hilariously lost in translation. One of the Beanbag Boys sagely explains that a nymphomaniac is a woman “who has sex on land and sea.”
Williams shines as Lucas, a crybaby and old soul who acts as the clique’s emotional glue while he deals with problems at home. “Lasagna and soda?” Lucas marvels at dinner with his mom and dad, affecting the demeanor of a middle-aged professional indulging in a second margarita. “Don’t tell my parents you gave me this!”
“We’re getting a divorce,” his mother (played by the inimitable Retta, of “Parks and Recreation”) responds dryly.
Lucas’s fear about his parents’ divorce maps onto his insecurity that the Beanbag Boys’ perfect bond could unravel. The boys, electrified by hormones, insecurity, and the untapped promise of middle school, are loving and bawdy and cruel with one another. They crave the attention and approval of other boys in a way that feels rightly ambiguous.
“Good Boys” doesn’t hit you on the head with its politics, but the screenwriters’ attention to the intimacies between boys is a strong statement in itself. Without being tedious or heavy-handed, “Good Boys” offers a glimpse of what good men are made of. They earnestly ask consent from stolen sex dolls before a practice makeout, they scream in horror after Googling “PORB” — wait, no — “PORN,” and they yell expletives at their friends, followed by, “I love you, too.”
Directed by Gene Stupnitsky. Written by Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg. Starring Jacob Tremblay, Keith L. Williams, Brady Noon. At Boston theaters, suburbs. 89 minutes. R (strong crude sexual content, drug and alcohol material, and language throughout).