Director: Chris McCoy Starring: Zoey Deutch, Nicholas Braun, Mateo Arias, Israel Broussard Running time: 86 minutes
Netflix has recently added Good Kids, an indie summer-before-college film that was released last year (2016). Unlike many films about teenagers, the characters could actually be real people. They speak realistically, they dress realistically (but still feel connected to the aesthetic of the film) and they go to parties that feel like a big deal without being Generation-X level ridiculous. The whole film just comes across as genuine, while still being compelling to watch (which indie can unfortunately struggle with!) Good Kids is a funny, sweet take on the ‘quarter-life crisis’.
Good Kids is what you think your life is like when you’re a teenager, with the stakes building and in the moment feeling like life or death, but from an outsider’s perspective it’s hilarious and kind of adorable. The film follows Nora, Andy, Spice and The Lion, they’re not stereotypical nerds but they have all ‘wasted’ high school on academia rather than socialising. We first see the four friends writing college applications as children. A group of kids led by Conch and Plymouth Rock, who fill the roles usually held by bullies or Jocks in a teen film, come and invite them to come look for a dead body and they ask “Why, are you going into forensics?” There are clearly very different priorities at play here. Skip to the present and the friends are sitting in Andy’s car after graduation, we see the others partying just beyond their reach. Andy says “We all graduated together, you’d just think we’d be invited to celebrate together”, this sets them off on a “summer of yes”, led by Andy who feels hard done by.
Usually, physical comedy in a teen movie is gonna be crass at best and unwatchable at worst. The physical comedy in this film is subtle – Andy is comically tall, and seeing him in a tiny tennis outfit is a smirk-inducing reminder of the funny side of puberty. When Nora headbutts a microscope because she sees a hot guy, it’s goofy but it doesn’t come close to the awkward indie chick trope. The Lion leading a group of drunk/high partygoers in an impromptu Tai Chi lesson is a lovely bit of visual humour.
Often indie films neglect costume, opting for character-appropriate clothes if any explicit styling can be seen at all, but McCoy has used costume here both to comedic effect and to mirror the bright, zesty greens, blues and yellows that burst off the screen in every shot. There’s particularly creative use of a golf card but it’s better if you see it for yourself.
The morning following graduation, Andy leads them with a speech about the ‘summer of yes’. The Lion wants to experiment with drugs, Spice wants ‘release’, Andy wants sex and Nora wants a boyfriend. From this point, Andy gets a bit possessive but Nora let’s him know about it with sarcastic quips; “Thank you for your approval Andy”.
The Lion gets invited to a party and it’s the perfect excuse to try out saying yes. When the 4 show up at this big trendy house with all the beautiful people, looking awkward and nervous, McCoy again uses some purely visual humour which surprisingly makes us empathise with the characters. Spice gets into a bet with a girl who says he won’t be able to make a souffle rise with all the noise and heat of the party. The Lion quickly makes a group of friends who proceed to Tai Chi together at several of the parties. Andy shows off his party trick of being able to catch food in his mouth from any distance. Nora’s hot, older colleague from the lab happens to be at the party and she works on getting a boyfriend.
Later, The 4 sneak back into their respective houses, with reactions ranging from shock to swingers, from Spice sadly sloping up the staircase met by no one (perhaps explaining why he works all the time and we hardly see him – layers upon layers) to Andy’s dad quipping “I don’t know but I’m jealous” when his wife worriedly wonders what they’ve been up to.
Zoey Deutch’s brand of humour is in the same line as Elliot Page’s, elevating Good Kids like Page did for Juno. She plays Nora as a funny, sarcastic nerd who is well-equipped to counter the everyday sexism levelled at her throughout. Nora’s “Finally a girl” this summer, or dresses conventionally like one. Her friends don’t have a very progressive relationship with her sexuality- Andy is possessive, Spice is part of the problem and part of the solution depending on the minute of the day and The Lion is a silent bystander. The prominence of condoms in Good Kids is unfortunately a good but rare thing in a teen film. And they’re not shoehorned in, when Nora tells Erland she likes him, he replies “I, have this” and it’s funny but kinda sad and perhaps a little too relatable.
At the next party, Andy bitches to Spice about Nora and Erland. Spice doesn’t bite, saying “Who cares, she’s happy” and if he was Erland “I’d wanna be nailing 18 year olds too”. I wish he’d left it at the first part but he is a teenage boy which I guess lowers the bar.
Andy inadvertently becomes a prostitute when his ‘tennis lesson’ with Ashley Judd turns out to be an excuse to get him to her place. There follows a montage of ‘tennis lessons’ with a variety of women. This subplot falls a little flat for me but it does lead to a surprisingly funny climax. If Good Kids is about quarter-life crisis, it’s definitely Andy’s. While this sets them off on a great summer that forces them out of their comfort zone, Andy is shitty to Nora and yeah he’s challenged on it, but the ending kind of undercuts that.
Although Israel Broussard doesn’t get much screen time he makes an impression and feels like a rounded character. As was mentioned earlier, there seems to be an unspoken story going on with Spice. He works all the time and when he sneaks back in after the first party, he’s the only one of the four not greeted by parents. Spice has an all too real friendship with Nora; how he speaks about her behind her back is leaps and bounds from his defense of her when she’s present. Spice is a catalyst for a small but noteworthy comment on consent and sexual politics in the film. He is making out with a girl at the party and very visibly pleased about it. He keeps bonking her arm, hinting heavily. She stops and leaves, telling him “If you had tried some subtlety, instead of moving your hips all creepily”, so he might have had a chance if he hadn’t been so pushy.
The Lion could easily have been written off as ridiculous, pure comic relief. But he’s likeable, he believes in martial arts and actually seems like a pretty good teacher. When he’s invited to the initial party on the back of one of his classes, it doesn’t come out of nowhere for us. He’s kooky sure, but in a roll-your-eyes-oh-you way, not in a no human has ever behaved this way way (way). Spice and the Lion in particular open up the definition of geekdom, going beyond the “Star Wars” “Don’t you mean Star Trek” cue laugh track formula a certain Bang Theory so enjoys. Each of them has a ‘thing’, a skill or talent that they have clearly refined but it’s nice to see that they aren’t just say, maths and science.
Speaking of adding nuance to tropes, does anyone remember that episode of Sabrina the Teenage Witch where she accidentally swapped places with Libby and she saw how hard Libby found maths and realised she had a tutor and realises that Libby is a person and not just horrible for the sake of it? Well, Conch and Plymouth Rock, the would-be bullies if this were any other teen flick, have depth. It turns out, Andy’s alienation was more to do with him than anyone else . When he happens upon Conch babysitting, this hits home as he tells Andy “Nobody ever disliked you guys…you exiled yourselves” Interestingly, Nora had mentioned when Andy was venting about none of them being invited to celebrate graduation that you don’t really get invited, you just show up. Conch makes a well-crafted joke that Andy could have got the best of both out of one his cougars at graduation; “She coulda chaperoned and been your date c’mon you gotta think about these things”. Good Kids should have ended here. It could have cut out the strange prostitution sub-plot, and the one with the Indian catfish from the internet who turns out to be real and left well enough alone. This was the strongest scene in the film, and that’s largely because for all his supposed brains, Andy actually learns something.
But the film doesn’t end there because Hollywood doesn’t take any of my calls. Having Andy and Nora kiss is unnecessary, out of character (for her) and honestly, irresponsible filmmaking. I don’t want to watch someone kiss a guy who explicitly said he’s not ready for her to blossom. Why have Nora show him it wouldn’t work between them by talking dirty to prove how alien and wrong it would feel, and then have them kiss?
Still, the rich visuals, good camera work, and strong acting make this a surprisingly brilliant summer film. With its organically funny dialogue, and some of the quieter moments of visual story-telling, you can definitely see why Good Kids was featured on 2011’s Black list (a collection of the best written screenplays that haven’t yet been produced). Good Kids is your best friend in high school – clever, stylish but makes some awful decisions.(3.5 / 5)