- Teens and pre-teens
- Parents keen on going into cardiac arrest
- Netflix and don’t chill, because the movie will raise concerns about sexual interactions right after
I was thoroughly uncomfortable watching Netflix’s The Kissing Booth. I wasn’t the target demographic, and it can be argued that the target demographic itself would find the movie difficult to swallow. Even then, intentionally or otherwise, the movie provided plenty of food for thought and turned into an intellectual battleground. To me at least.
The Kissing Booth looks at lifelong friends Elle (Joey King) and Lee (Joel Courtney) as they go through high school, navigating the usual teen anxieties surrounding acceptance, popularity, and the opposite sex. The duo has been attached at the hip since their births, when their mothers, they themselves lifelong friends, gave birth to their children on the same day. That otherworldly connection, aided by a set of rules and guidelines the duo adheres to, has ensured the survival, if not the flourishing of their relationship over the years.
Once such rule, Rule 9 to be exact, prevents them from dating or engaging with the other’s relatives, a significant headache for Elle given her attraction to Lee’s older brother, Noah. Noah, the quintessential high school heartthrob who’ll wet a girl’s panties with a quick glance or a shake of his wavy hair, eclipses Lee at every turn. This makes the enforcement of Rule 9 even more vital, but when Elle and Lee set up a kissing booth for the school carnival, they inevitably play with fire. With the hopes of gaining fame, attention, and the undying affection of their peers, they each push their separate agendas with the booth, and for Elle, it could involve a certain older brother.
From start to almost the finish, The Kissing Booth is mostly an exercise in discomfort. It plays out like American Pie-lite or even the same with Mean Girls. We look at male-female interactions in high school through some problematic behaviors and attitudes. The appetizer involves Elle going to school on the first day, wearing a very short skirt because her last pair of pants ripped. As soon as she gets out of the car and walks into the premises, she garners the attention of every boy and girl around, one of whom has the audacity to smack her derriere. The incident is accompanied by some light-hearted musical sound effects, underplaying the severity of the event and overplaying the nonexistent levity. Noah, the older brother, sees this and rightfully picks a fight with the other man, but almost every beat is played out to elicit laughter, and it’s just the beginning.
Minors having house parties and taking shots. Girls prancing about in their underwear around high school seniors. Adolescents and pre-adolescents shedding their inhibitions for the world to see. The movie as it’s made is geared to teenagers. The actions, the reactions, and most importantly the score, attempt to romanticize what these teens try to do. We are meant to covet and desire the stereotype and the status quo from years ago. It’s cool to get into a fight and beat another guy up. It’s cool to get piss drunk and blackout at a party. It’s cool to be lathered in paint and run around a boys’ locker room in your underwear. Is it troubling because everyone’s portraying college behavior, or is it troubling because we’re watching this movie as adults?
It has to be a case of both, so it might be better to judge the movie from the mindset of a 16-year-old, a difficult proposition since that would require me to regress in age by a decade or so. What would I have wanted when I was 16? Attention? Sure. Popularity? Most definitely. Sex? Absolutely.
The Kissing Booth plays out as a teenager’s fantasy. 10 years ago, however. The culture has changed. Conversations around age, consent, masculinity, and femininity have evolved. There are more absolutes and more grey areas. You don’t smack a woman’s ass if you don’t know her (I don’t think this was ever fine). Even at a strip club that would draw the attention of a bouncer. Underage drinking is illegal but widely accepted, but is it acceptable for teenagers to abuse their way to blacking out? How about dating? Is it normal for a high school senior to date and have sex with a 16-year-old girl? It happens, but is it acceptable? Should we romanticize it?
The movie glosses over these questions, and it does that by focusing on a certain perspective. In this instance, the perspective is that of a teenager, a 16-year-old. At that age, the desire to be noticed and appreciated by your friends and foes is much like a drug. Getting that attention, especially from the opposite sex is empowering. A short skirt or a revealing outfit goes a long way then. If Kissing Booth had a slogan or mantra to accompany it, it would be “teenagers will be teenagers.” It’s a rebellious few years, and rebellions are inherently risky and dangerous. The movie looks at some of those hazardous actions but doesn’t dwell on the underbelly of those actions, the darker side or the worst case scenario. What’s the worst thing that could happen if a teenage girl goes into a boy’s locker room? How about if a guy walks from behind and grabs her buttocks? How about if she gets drunk at a party and blacks out?
The film won’t give you the answers, instead playing off with a “things have always been this way” vibe so let’s roll with it. As a teenager, I wouldn’t mind, but now I do. It plays to some of our worst instincts and impulses that are best left locked away.
The movie’s thought exercise doesn’t end there. What was refreshing at the end is how it injected pragmatism into our leading characters. We’re looking at a high school romance, romances that are more than likely to wilt and perish in due time. By introducing the theme of impermanence in the finale, The Kissing Booth attempts at an olive branch to older viewers, those of us who are no doubt privy to the aches and pains of heartbreak. Maybe this is a coming of age movie, a movie whose screenplay grapples with its juvenile tendencies before coming out wiser and brighter on the other side.