Critic's Notebook: 'Good Boys' and the Rise of the Gritty Middle-School Comedy

Recent big- and small-screen depictions of tween life aren't just funny. They're shrewdly examining how kids are growing up faster than ever before.

In one of the sweeter scenes from Universal's R-rated comedy Good Boys, which opened with a surprising $21 million this past weekend, a nerdy 11-year-old (Keith L. Williams) tries to convince his insulted bestie to attend a cool-kids party after all. Nascent lady's man Max (Jacob Tremblay) feels hurt following a friendship-ending fight with insecure Thor (Brady Noon), and at the mention of his former buddy's name, he mutters a demure "Fuck that bitch."

Dear reader, I guffawed.

Perhaps it was the dichotomy between Tremblay's innate warmth and his ice-cold delivery. Or maybe it was because this line is the exact thing I would say when facing down my own bruised ego. My proudly puerile tastes notwithstanding, the moment encapsulates the two contrasting elements that make Good Boys a joyful theater-going experience (and so far, one of my favorite films of the year): relatable tempest-in-a-teapot tween vulnerability and the raw, foul-mouthed realities of the Boschian hellscape known as middle school.

In plate tectonics, a subduction zone occurs when two massive slabs of the Earth's crust slowly converge, forcing one plate to warp and slide beneath the other toward the molten, blistering mantle layer. The collision of these enormous boundaries causes earthquakes, volcanoes and tsunamis. And when childish innocence slams into hormonal experimentation, what erupts is pure pubescent volatility.  

It's no surprise, then, that "gritty middle school" is the final frontier for Hollywood raunch. In a year-plus of resurgent adolescent sturm und drang that hasn't been seen since the teen sex-com heyday of the late 1990s, with stories like Euphoria, Sex Education, Derry Girls, 13 Reasons Why, Stranger Things and Booksmart pervading screens big and small, the younger set is finally getting their due.

From Netflix's bacchanalian animated sitcom Big Mouth and Hulu's surreal single-cam comedy PEN15 to the Apatovian-style bildungsroman Good Boys and Bo Burnham's crushing indie Eighth Grade, comedians have recently mined subversive pre-teen lithospheres to hilarious (and heartbreaking) effect. But these darker visions of the middle school era are providing more than just funny/lewd/shocking stories about coming of age — they're stealthily examining how technology and social politics are forcing kids to grow up earlier than they've ever had to.

The sixth-grade protagonists of Good Boys were born no earlier than 2007. Take that in for a moment. Not only have these kids never known life before the internet; they've never known life before smartphones and social media. Their "normal" consists of school-shooting preparation, regular reports of mass gun violence and access to the 24-hour news cycle. Post-9/11 paranoia was the political baseline they were born into, which feels pea-size compared to the daily bombardments of the current presidential era.

Don't worry, though, the film is far too jubilant to delve into any of that. No doubt, the script is a fantasy of preadolescent freedom — perhaps a remnant of screenwriters Lee Eisenberg and Gene Stupnitsky's nostalgia for the days when 11-year-olds could roam their suburban neighborhoods with nary an ounce of parental oversight.

But you feel the zeitgeist in other ways. Good Boys milks dramatic irony for all it's worth, as baby-faced Max, Thor and Lucas (Williams) get into increasingly chaotic mishaps due to their age-appropriate earnestness and inexperience — from selling their parents' busty "CPR doll" for quick cash to discovering the viscous horrors of web pornography.

It's not just merely funny or transgressive to watch kids perform as adults (in the way it was funny almost 100 years ago when the Little Rascals stood on each other's shoulders and pretended to be grown men). Instead, we're watching technological dystopia in action as the internet becomes their lubricant to accessing a world beyond the safety zone of their friendship. It's the same tool that nearly destroys Eighth Grade's social media-obsessive Kayla, offers the kids of Big Mouth unrealistic expectations about sex and relationships, and exposes PEN15's Maya and Anna to an unregulated early 2000s chatroom space. Kids may be biologically maturing at younger rates than ever, but they're also being pushed through these changes thanks to the total accessibility of the information age.

Please don't mistake me for a Luddite, as I believe the moral panic over screen time is a monolithic scapegoat masking a combination of factors that have lead to a generation of unhappy, anxiety-prone youth. (Try tech-assisted social disconnection alongside pathological overscheduling and socioeconomic insecurity as the middle class shrinks.) In marketing, there's even terminology for the phenomenon of kids socially maturing at faster rates than their generational predecessors. KGOY, or "Kids getting older, younger" refers to the trend of kids becoming more sophisticated cultural consumers due to tech and cultural exposure. (Which explains, for example, why Sesame Street is now marketed to 1- to 3-year-olds when it used to be geared toward 3- to 7-year-olds.)

The middle-school war zone isn't a new concept, but we may finally be at a cultural point where we're ready to recognize the toxicity of that liminal zone between childhood and adolescence. (And artists who lived through it are ready to tell their stories.) I have my own cruelly annotated middle-school yearbook to prove it, a primary source for that bloodletting lingo 12-year-old girls cling to in a kid-eat-kid environment.

In 2001, it wasn't uncommon in my middle school to find swastikas carved into classroom desks, witness graphic and demeaning sexual harassment from bullies, or endure daily psychological abuse from mean girls. Betas like myself survived by becoming the very things we feared and twisting their viciousness back on them, if only privately. Eighth Grade was the second-scariest horror film of 2018, precisely because I both painfully related to Kayla and also recognized, truthfully, that I would have made fun of easy prey like her.

Stories like Good Boys, PEN15 and Big Mouth reflect the grasping braggadocio of this age group far more than entertainment actually targeted to them on Nickelodeon and the Disney Channel. Even at age 30, watching these movies and TV shows, I embrace the memories of being a 12-year-old spitfire naïf who journaled about her love of Frasier on one page and ragefully wrote the f-word over and over on another.  

"If the adults only fucking knew," I often thought. Except now, they kinda do.