The Kissing Booth movies exist in the horror equivalent of a rom-com universe. The bizarre, uncanny nature of the characters don’t exist to charm audiences, but to make them squirm and writhe around in their seats, begging for a mercy kill. It’s as if the people behind these films could surely not be so tone deaf as to misunderstand not just how normal human beings behave, but what makes rom-com characters charming in the first place. Then again, this rift in what audiences want and what The Kissing Booth is willing to give is what makes these particular films so fascinating. A Letterboxd review once dubbed the first film “soft-core porn for teens.” It’s an inexplicable experience, but it’s hard to look away.
In The Kissing Booth 2, the film’s act is cleaned up a bit —if only marginally. The production values look a little better than a cable television show, Joey King has had two years and an awards-nominated, star turn on Hulu’s The Act to hone-in on her comedy chops (with so-so results), and the cringe has been dialed back substantially. But The Kissing Booth films would not be what they are without being delightfully out-of-touch, working from a script that isn’t entirely sure how to land a single joke, or what makes characters in a romantic comedy endearing, or knows what goes on in an American high school — but then, I truly don’t know what goes on in a high school this wealthy either. Maybe rich people are just like that.
We circle back on our heroine Elle Evans (King) in the fallout from the previous film: how she’s been dealing with the absence of her boyfriend, popular himbo bad boy Noah Flynn (Jacob Elordi) who was somehow accepted into Harvard University. Though Elle still loves Noah very deeply, she’s mature enough to understand that he’s in college while she’s now entering her senior year of high school, and, generally speaking, long-distance relationships post-high school don’t have a sturdy track record. So, in an effort to give him some space, Elle forges onward with her bestie BFF-4-lyfe Lee Flynn (Joel Courtney) Noah’s younger brother, for a totally capital “E” epic final year of high school.
However, Elle soon discovers that her distancing efforts were not reciprocated, and Noah was still interested in keeping things hot and heavy. As she attempts to return to normalcy with him despite the miles between L.A. and Boston, she finds herself under the spell of another himbo at large — Marco Peña (Taylor Zajhar Perez), along with splitting her paper-thin self between multiple subplots stretched out over an unwieldy 131-minute run time. A trip to Harvard plants seeds of jealousy and doubt in Elle’s mind as she grapples with Noah having one female friend; Noah wants her to go to school in Boston, when she promised Lee they would go to college together (Rules for Best Friends #19: Always go to the same school as your bestie!!); Elle’s overbearing friendship causes a rift between Noah and his girlfriend, Rachel (Meganne Young). And we didn’t even get to the actual kissing booth yet! Yeah, that happens again!!
Perhaps, the second film was given the free reign that it was due to the virtual success of the first installment, in which its vast commercial consumption on Netflix outweighed the nasty critical reviews. So, it gets to be over two hours in length, the production design is upgraded, the subplots become more convoluted and, overall, the film is a moderate improvement on the first. The friendship between Elle and Lee manages to be believably charming, and there are less instances of seat-clenching cringe save for some particularly heinous stuff here and there, including a bizarre bit in which Elle monologues about being horny for Marco unwittingly over the school intercom, and a shoehorned romance at the end of the film that comes off offensive in its attempt to be inclusive.
But the word “moderate” is doing a lot of heavy lifting when talking about the sequel’s improvements, and which can’t cancel out this film’s insistence on taking up a timeshare in the Uncanny Valley. An admissions counselor is bizarrely cruel, treating Elle like an inconvenience for speaking to him and chides her for not having many subscribers as a video game streamer. There’s a secretary featured in one scene who behaves as if she has a gerbil hidden up her ass. The film is entirely out-of-touch with the concept of class and wealth disparity, and Elle’s beautiful, suburban Los Angeles home and enrollment in private school is still enough cause for her to claim she’s “not exactly rich” when speaking about college tuition, which one can suppose is only in comparison to the Flynn family’s absurd, Hollywood bachelor mansion. King, Elordi, and Courtney are all doing their best, and one can only hope they got substantial paychecks (and they must’ve – because a threequel has already been made).
You can go on and on about the plethora of absurdities in this film. Its resolve in treating the lives of women as entirely dependent upon men, the wonderfully ridiculous dead mom motif, an emotional montage set to a Dance Dance Revolution routine that tows the line of self-parody. In a way, the film is charming in its tone-deafness – seemingly a relic from a bygone era when rampant misogyny in comedy films was still ok, but was somehow released in the year 2020. Because of this, these films are endlessly entertaining and rewatchable in a masochistic sense. Their miserable nature is fascinating, and their steadfastness in their intent to be miserable is almost praiseworthy. Nobody will stop watching The Kissing Booth films because we want to see just how bad they can get. What do people say about suffering for art.
The Kissing Booth 2 is available to stream now on Netflix
by Brianna Zigler
Brianna is a graduate in Film-Video and Writing from Penn State University with big plans and not a lot of planning. She loves horror, absurdism, Twin Peaks, is a die-hard Wes Anderson fan, and currently has almost 250 movies in her watchlist. Her favorite films are What We Do in the Shadows, A Serious Man, Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, Swiss Army Man, and Suspiria. You can follow her on Twitter @briannazigs