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This R-rated comedy about 12-year-old boys is raunchy, vulgar, funny — and surprisingly sweet

From left: Brady Noon, Keith L. Williams and Jacob Tremblay in “Good Boys.” (Universal Pictures)
(2.5 stars)

Much has been made of how “Good Boys” — an R-rated comedy about a trio of sixth-grade nerds caught up in a misadventure involving drugs, sex toys, beer and slapstick mishaps — looks like a junior varsity version of “Superbad,” or, to cite a more recent precedent, “Booksmart,” but with 12-year-old boys. Those comparisons are fair, and fairly accurate. The comedy, produced by “Superbad’s” writer/producers Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, hits all the expected marks for raunch and vulgarity, with the bonus that it is actually also kind of sweet.

Mostly, that’s thanks to the three young actors at the center of the story: Jacob Tremblay as Max, Brady Noon as Thor and Keith L. Williams as Lucas, playing an inseparable posse of newly minted sixth-graders whose voices haven’t yet changed and who are still obsessed with Ascension, a card-deck-building game of fantasy. They’re all appealing performers, but Williams, in particular, steals the show, playing a tall-for-his-age dweeb who, by his own admission, loves rules and is struggling with the just-announced divorce of his parents (Lil Rel Howery and Retta).

Known collectively as the Beanbag Boys, for reasons that aren’t ever fully explained, but that surely have something to do with baked-in geekiness, they’re mostly social outcasts at school — with the exception of Max, who somehow manages to snag an invitation to a kissing party at the home of the school’s most effortlessly cool rugrat rebel, a little James Dean-in-training named Soren (Izaac Wang).

Because Max’s dream girl (Millie Davis) will also be in attendance, and because Max knows nothing about kissing, the three boys undertake a crash course on the subject, borrowing a drone videocamera that belongs to Max’s dad (Will Forte), against the Old Man’s wishes, to spy on what the boys presume to be kissing experts: a pair of (relatively) worldly high school girls (Molly Gordon and Midori Francis).

This leads to a highly improbable yet pretty amusing concatenation of exploits involving the party drug MDMA, underage alcohol, a sex doll and a bicycle accident that leads to a dislocated shoulder. The plot is silly and episodic, and at times it’s hard to remember just what recent, implausible episode led to the current one. (Lines of dialogue must periodically be spoken to remind viewers of why exactly the three boys must, for instance, run across 12 lanes of traffic to get to a shopping mall.)

But plot hardly matters here. “Good Boys” exists for no other reason than to give us permission to laugh at on-screen versions of our own tiny, once-naive selves: selves who struggle to choke back more than three sips of beer to impress the popular kids, or who pronounce, as Max does with a mixture of supreme self-confidence and cluelessness, that a nymphomaniac is someone who is able to have sex “on both land and sea.”

The central struggle of “Good Boys” — and yes, there is one — is between the popular crowd and the so-called “try-hards,” epitomized by Thor, who loves musical theater, and his overly earnest friends, each of whom is at that age when he is beginning to find another obsession to replace Ascension (girls, in the case of Max, or, for Lucas, the school’s anti-bullying group, known as the Student Coalition Against Bullying, or SCAB). Sincerity, passion and effort, you see, are lame. Irony and not giving a damn are cool.

Except that “Good Boys” itself is kind of a try-hard. Sure, it makes anti-bullying efforts seem like a bad thing (one demerit for that). But it also knows when to pull back from the precipice of raunch-for-raunch’s sake, and look for something sweeter.

In other words, it wants to have both jokes and heart. And, to a large extent, it succeeds. That may not be cool, and it may not always succeed, but it’s not a bad thing to aspire to.

R. At area theaters. Contains strong crude sexual content, drug and alcohol material and crude language throughout, all involving tweens. 89 minutes.