Dir. Vince Marcello. Starring Joey King, Jacob Elordi, Joel Courtney
Like most of its constituent pieces, The Kissing Booth is primarily interesting because of where we’ve seen it somewhere else before. It’s the 21st Century in this film, but I can hardly remember anyone even looking at a cell phone, let alone getting into the guts of how kids live on the Internet. Thus, the choice to make the teen movie the ’80s teen movie again. The American teen movie of the 1980s is perhaps the most flamboyantly overrated genre in movie history, something which garners immense love and affection despite only producing the barest handful of decent movies in that time. The Kissing Booth is not taking Fast Times at Ridgemont High as its model, a film which, in the absence of Sean Penn, is occasionally (and ironically) brutal. No one has the sad charisma of Alan Ruck or weaponized anger of Jennifer Grey in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, who singlehandedly keeps that movie from becoming toxically smarmy. There’s no genre-mashing saving grace as there is in Back to the Future, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Labyrinth, or Fame. John Waters is not involved. Thus we’re left with a film that makes all the same mistakes, uses all the same signposts, and generally sucks as much as your regular ’80s teen romantic comedy. The protagonist does something dumb at a house party that she can’t take back. A wardrobe mishap changes her destiny, and mean girls with a catchy nickname (here the “OMG girls” instead of the “Plastics” or “Heathers”) adopt her for a spell. Boys want to fight over her, and they do on multiple occasions. There’s a kissing booth, for heaven’s sake, which I have not seen as a plot contrivance of any kind since I watched Cool Runnings. (Also, I know it’s beside the point, but no school in its right mind would ever countenance at not just one but two school-sanctioned events. Everyone goes to a private school, fine, but do they not have mono at private schools? Or parents?) It’s all stuff we’ve seen before, and none of it feels lived in or bold enough to leave an impression compared to its fellow imitators.
What fascinates me about this movie is that it has a 15% rating (off an admittedly small sample of just fifteen critics) on Rotten Tomatoes. I don’t get the sense that anyone is highlighting this film as a classic of the genre in the making. As far as I know, there are no adult stans of this movie, even though it’s been popular enough with its presumably middle-aged audience to engender two sequels. I just don’t understand what the difference is between this movie, which everyone agrees is bad, and your average John Hughes movie or, even worse, John Hughes disciple movie (The Edge of Seventeen, The Spectacular Now, Short Term 12). I don’t think it’s just that this film is directed at the preteen set and those other ones are for potentially more adult audiences, although if this has premiered at Sundance rather than going straight to Netflix, I think people would have responded more kindly. The execution of this movie is flat bad, which ain’t nothing. What it comes down to, I think, is that the people who grew up watching Hughes and Hughes-adjacent teen comedies are too old for this one. It’s not good, and maybe it’s not as technically sound as a Sixteen Candles. But then again, it’s not like Sixteen Candles is all that good either. It’s just older.
The Kissing Booth goes absolutely full bore into many of the worst conventions of the ’80s teen romcom. (The film is ignorant of social class and race, which, frankly, is kind of a relief given how terrible someone like John Hughes was at dealing with those. Have we mentioned that these were shot in South Africa?) A girl, Elle (King), is presented with two boys and has no mom of her own to guide her wisely. Alas that her father (Stephen Jennings) is both scruffy and useless, but hilariously, Molly Ringwald is in her life, and despite a conversation that seems like it ought to have some footprint, Ringwald might as well have been some anonymous Seth Efrican named “Rolly Mingwald” for all the impact she makes in this movie. Elle has virtually no command over her own life and spends most of the scenes with tension standing between two boys threatening to beat each other up; she is slightly klutzy and slightly talented in a way that is meant to signify that she is Relatable. She looks like if someone tried to draw Alexis Bledel from memory, but with similar amounts of eyeliner as Rory Gilmore might have used in the mid-late aughts. I liked King’s performance quite a bit as Ramona in Ramona and Beezus, and while I am sure that the great charm that she could summon up as a girl is in there still, she has absolutely no room to express it here because Elle is not meant to have any qualities too bold to distract from the potential Relatability of the character. I’m given to understand that the sequels to the The Kissing Booth, which exist because we live in Hell, are more cognizant of this emptiness in Elle’s personality and strive to fill it. Obviously it doesn’t happen soon enough to make a dent in this picture.
Elle knows that she has a choice to make, and she puts it off as long as possible. Will she prioritize Lee (Courtney), her best friend, or Noah (Elordi), the one she wants to bone? The film’s one bit of character is that the boys are brothers. Lee has the same birthday as Elle and has been her best friend since they were titchy, and Noah is older, a little bad, a little sporty, and despite all this headed for Harvard. Lee has abs because he’s skinny; Noah has abs because he put them there. Lee likes to play an unlicensed DDR with Elle, and Noah likes to ride his motorcycle. The dialogue about what women really want has kicked up again in much the same tones that they were spoken in during the 1980s. Will Elle continue her basically preadolescent friendship or sacrifice it for like, sex? If it seems like she shouldn’t have to sacrifice her preadolescent friendship just because she’s interested in dating her friend’s brother, you might be fairly normal. However, at the mere suggestion that Elle might be attracted to Noah or start spending more time with him, Lee devolves into a hissy fit. He’s allowed to get a girlfriend, one he meets through the kissing booth (“meets” is a strong word), but the idea that Elle might wind up with a boyfriend after years of never being kissed doesn’t seem to have entered his brain. In his own way, Lee is as pointlessly shrouded as Elle. Why it should make him so mad that Elle and Noah have a thing together is mystifying, and the movie never works its way to what the most obvious conclusion is. There’s no particular animus between Noah and Lee, who are so close in age (if not in height, body type, etc.) that it’s Lee seems genuinely disinterested in Elle as a potential romantic partner, even though I kept waiting for the movie to reach the point where Lee does the whole, “You’re supposed to be with me romantically because I warmed you up first!” thing. That The Kissing Booth wards off this cliché is impressive in its own way, but unfortunately it doesn’t remember that the character might still need a motivation of some kind even if it happens to be hackneyed.
In ten to fifteen years, it wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest to see the reevaluation of The Kissing Booth as its young fans matriculate to positions of Internet visibility. Film Twitter will have a field day, surely, when people argue that it’s about friendship first, that the brothers fighting over the same girl without necessarily having the same goal in mind is “revolutionary.” It’ll draw attention for its somewhat bittersweet ending, which leaves things a little more open-ended than your usual teen movie does; it doesn’t have the same levels of “together forever” that others do, given that the final scenes see Elle dropping Noah off at the airport. All of this will be levied as some kind of proof that the film is ahead of its time or subverting expectations or whatever it is people say to gussy up a bad movie. Your time is coming, The Kissing Booth. All you have to do is put your coins in the snack machine and wait for the nostalgia to uncoil.