The Kissing Booth franchise, unlike other similarly flimsy high school rom-coms, refuses to pretend that teenagers aren’t mad, libidinous beasts 80% of the time. Instead of neutering his adolescent love birds — a fate reserved for the simpering leads of Netflix’s Tall Girl, Sierra Burgess Is a Loser and the To All the Boys I Loved Before series — The Kissing Booth‘s director Vince Marcello leans into the hormonal calamity of youth and all its sweaty, sticky bilge. The frothy film, which became a hit for Netflix in 2018 and spurred the platform’s foray into cheaply made romantic teen comedies, brazenly features an unremarkable teen girl who — gasp! — actually has uncomplicated sex for the first time mid-film and then continues to have uncomplicated sex for the rest of the story.
That’s not to say that the comedy and its 2020 successor, The Kissing Booth 2, aren’t dithering trifles. They are. And that’s fine. But it’s practically a revelation to watch films of this ilk fully embrace the fantasy of the horny, hetero female underdog. Namely, a story where a) a late-blooming protagonist, fully ensconced in the world of boys, never has to worry about her relationships with other girls; b) this girl can suddenly enjoy the pleasures of her newfound sexual capital and the attentions of the male gaze without her peers ever condemning her as a “slut”; and c) she can perform her sexuality for multiple audiences by making out with chiseled hotties on stage at various public events.
Elle Evans (Joey King), a bubbly, extroverted dork in the vein of Full House‘s Kimmy Gibbler, finally gets to show the world (a.k.a. her classmates) that she’s a sexual commodity and never experiences an ounce of tragicomic humiliation in the process. Why, it’s practically a dream.
In The Kissing Booth, a different sort of love triangle, Elle faces turmoil when she must choose between her loyalty to her platonic BFF, Lee (Joel Courtney), and her animal sexual chemistry with his thorny brother, Noah (Euphoria‘s Jacob Elordi). After sixteen years of invisibility, arcade dance game enthusiast Elle finally, uh, fills out and draws the interest of her entire private school, including gruff, womanizing jock Noah, who claims to be protecting Elle from his horndog buddies. Elle and Lee create a kissing booth for a school fundraiser, and through a series of Shakespearian mishaps, she ends up blindfolded passionately snogging Noah in front of her peers.
From there, she and Noah soon enjoy the thrills of a secret affair while avoiding controlling and codependent Lee, who, for some obscure reason, threatens to end his friendship with Elle if she ever breaks their “rule” about dating each other’s relatives. The film ends with the unintentionally hilarious image of Joey King riding off into the distance on her boyfriend’s motorcycle.
Adapted from Beth Reekles’ Y.A. novel of the same name, The Kissing Booth doesn’t take a lot of brain power, but it’s still more emotionally urgent than its puttering sequel, which features a lot of 17-year-old-style navel-gazing about “meant to be.” (Why on earth is this film two hours and twelve minutes long?) With Noah off to Harvard and faraway from his Los Angeleno girlfriend, Elle must contend with college admissions, her barnacle of a best friend and a temptress with a guitar named Marco (Taylor Perez).
The Kissing Booth 2 wades into the quagmire of what happens when the glow fades from a new relationship, hitting the same wan beats as To All the Boys: P.S. I Still Love You by providing Elle an object of sexual jealousy to ruminate over (Noah’s picture-perfect college friend Chloe, played by Maisie Richardson-Sellers) and a musical hunk to bond with (aforementioned new kid Marco, who sings pretty songs but, more importantly, is an expert at Dance Dance Revolution.) She eventually teams up with Marco to enter a dance game competition and win money to attend college.
The Kissing Booth franchise refuses to develop any characters beyond its three main players, which renders the sequel’s subplot about Lee’s girlfriend Rachel (Meganne Young) resenting the claustrophobic closeness between the besties effectively dead on arrival. (The writers also try to squeeze in a “heartwarming” storyline about two male high school red shirts falling for each other, but I wasn’t even entirely sure if these characters had names.)
The universe of this West L.A. prep school is also afflicted with teen flick clichés, from a trio of rich mean girls whose clique has its own cutesy epithet to Elle swooning over paternalistic boys who just want to look after her. Her dead mother is a narrational fashion accessory and she seems to have no interest in any person that isn’t a cis male. The film climaxes on another wildly exhibitionistic kiss, this time in front of thousands of people.
The script’s most painfully vexing moment: a laughless extended gag where Elle word vomits about how hot Marco is unknowingly over the school’s loudspeaker. The film’s most incongruously sentimental moment: an arcade-set sequence where she and Marco bop around on a neon-flashing dance machine while sweeping, romantic violins overtake the audio. Embarrassing loudmouths can get it, too, I guess.
As I might have said during my own high school days, The Kissing Booth 2 is “mad stupid,” but it’s still not as overtly slappable as Netflix’s other low-budget teen comedies. The only thing I truly want to slap here is that turtle-shell-like biker helmet off Elle’s grinning head.
Director: Vince Marcello
Cast: Joey King, Joel Courtney, Jacob Elordi, Taylor Perez, Meganne Young, Maisie Richardson-Sellers, Molly Ringwald
Premieres: Friday, July 24th (Netflix)