Dir: Vince Marcello. Starring: Joey King, Joel Courtney, Jacob Elordi, Maisie Richardson-Sellers, Taylor Perez, Molly Ringwald. 12 cert, 131 mins
In the vast, digital lucky dip that is Netflix’s slate of original films, romcoms come in two forms: the unexpected delight (To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before) and the magnificent cheese-fest (A Christmas Prince). It’s a win-win situation, in a way. But what do we do with 2018’s The Kissing Booth? Adapted from Beth Reekles’s YA novel, originally published on storytelling platform Wattpad, it’s an unfortunate outlier on the streaming service – totally devoid of pleasure, genuine or guilty.
It’s defining trait, in fact, is its strange insidiousness. A girl, Shelley (Joey King), is trapped in a push-and-pull between two equally possessive brothers. Her relationship with the younger one, Lee Flynn (Joel Courtney), is entirely platonic – they’ve been BFFs all their lives. But he’s vehemently barred her from ever dating his older, jock brother Noah (Jacob Elordi), who in turn can only express his feelings for Shelley by refusing to let any of his own friends date her. The boys manipulate and guilt-trip Shelley at every turn but, somehow, she’s the one who has to beg forgiveness before she gets to skip off into the sunset with Noah.
Download the new Independent Premium app
Sharing the full story, not just the headlines
Critics decried the film’s blatant sexism, but audiences made it a hit. An inevitable sequel was ordered. To The Kissing Booth 2’s credit, it’s not as aggressively problematic as its predecessor. The titular carnival attraction does make a second appearance – in this world, a kissing booth involves blindfolded teens exchanging saliva while the rest of the school crowds around and jeers like a pack of pervy cartoon wolves. But at least Shelley can now get through the average school day without being slut-shamed by her peers. Noah, meanwhile, is a changed man, having jetted off to Harvard at the end of the first film. He no longer has the worrying impulse to fistfight every man in his vicinity (in the first film, there’s even a moment where Lee accuses Noah of having physically abused Shelley).
Here, it’s Shelley who steps in as the controlling obsessive. Her opening monologue may claim that she’s at peace with the idea that her long-distance relationship with Noah may not last, but she spends most of the film fixated on even the smallest indication he’s cheating on her with Chloe (Maisie Richardson-Sellers) – the greatest of threats, since she’s beautiful, sophisticated, and (most importantly) British. She becomes hysterical after discovering they’ve been texting each other “that’s what she said” jokes. And so, naturally, she retaliates by flirting relentlessly with the slick and sensitive Marco (Taylor Perez), about whose butt she says: “I don’t know whether to lick it, smack it, or bite it.”
She also has a tendency to insert herself in the middle of Lee and his girlfriend (Meganne Young), much to the latter’s chagrin. It’s here that The Kissing Booth 2 tiptoes into pure absurdism, as Shelley and Lee try their hand at competitive Dance Dance Revolution. Director Vince Marcello, returning from the first film, imagines these tournaments not as a gaggle of sweaty nerds stamping on an arcade machine, but as full-blown pageantry. There is fire. There are lasers. Professional dancers, dripping in rhinestones, toss their partners in the air like they’re Torvill and Dean.
It’s a welcome departure, at least, from the film’s weary familiarity – lovers playfully smash cupcakes into each other’s faces, a trio of Heathers wannabes stalk the halls, and dramatic revelations interrupt Thanksgiving dinner. Somewhere in the background of the scene wanders Eighties icon Molly Ringwald, playing the Flynn matriarch. She’s the reminder of the film The Kissing Booth 2 can never be.
The Kissing Booth 2 is available on Netflix on 24 July