We all like bad movies when we’re young and sometimes we like good movies for the wrong reasons. I can pretend my 11-year-old self loved “Clueless” when it came out in 1995 for its smart satire of teen movies in a modernized Jane Austen framework. But if I’m being honest, it definitely had more to do with that dreamy Los Angeles high school lifestyle, a burgundy baby doll dress, a fuzzy pink pen and a handsome love interest. It just happens that “Clueless” was also a good movie.
So I can’t fault any teen or pre-teen who has found themselves swooning over “The Kissing Booth” and its own fantasy of Los Angeles high school life the way I swooned over Cher and Josh’s first kiss a quarter century ago. Unfortunately, “The Kissing Booth” is not a good movie and neither is its sequel.
Netflix presents a film directed by Vince Marcello and written by Marcello and Jay Arnold. No MPAA rating. Running time: 132 minutes. Now showing on Netflix.
Here’s the short of it: If you liked “The Kissing Booth,” you’ll probably like “The Kissing Booth 2.” If you didn’t, you’d be better off spending your 132 minutes (seriously) doing something — anything — other than giving this shameless, uninspired and, worst of all, dull movie a moment of your time, attention or thought.
It’s not a surprise that it exists. “The Kissing Booth,” based on a 15-year-old’s internet-published novel, became an unexpected, grassroots phenomenon for Netflix in 2018. The silly teen trifle struck a chord with the ever-elusive young adult demo who watched, re-watched, tweeted and talked about this movie in which a high school junior, Elle (Joey King) starts dating her best friend Lee’s (Joel Courtney) older brother Noah (Jacob Elordi).
Their social media followings exploded (it didn’t hurt that King and Elordi were also dating in real life at the time), and people kept watching the film despite the fact that it carried a decidedly rotten Rotten Tomatoes score. And, ultimately, it’s the kind of organic, enthusiastic audience that money can’t buy and boardrooms can’t replicate — although that doesn’t stop anyone from trying.
Thus the sequel, directed and co-written again by Vince Marcello, doesn’t stray too far from the formula of the first, putting well-worn high school movie tropes in glossy, expensive packaging. Marcello has gathered up much of the original cast, including poor Molly Ringwald as Noah and Lee’s mother, to take us through Elle’s senior year in which she navigates college applications, a long-distance relationship with Noah (now a freshman at Harvard), a new crush and the big Dance Dance Revolution contest that she has to win for tuition money. (Why not throw a “Dirty Dancing” side plot in with the kitchen sink?)
Like the first, this movie does not exist in any sort of reality: financial, emotional or physical. It’s the kind of world where Lee and Noah, who the movie otherwise treat as normal upper middle-class suburban kids, casually live in what is probably a $25 million Hollywood Hills house. Where it’s possible to enter a national dance competition, having only arcade experience, in a city full of professional dancers and performers, and not be totally embarrassed. And where all that’s standing between you and a shot at getting into Harvard and Berkeley is a few Audrey Hepburn quotes and a heartfelt essay about where you see yourself in five years. The joy is forced, the revelations trite and the characters are unmemorable.
The one saving grace is King, a genuinely delightful young actor who manages to hold your attention and empathy even if her underwritten character barely deserves it.
Teen movies are often aspirational but rarely as flagrantly and unapologetically as this. It’s funny that the author said she wanted to write “The Kissing Booth” because the only young adult romance books out there were of the supernatural/vampire variety and she wanted something real. On screen, though, “The Kissing Booth” and “The Kissing Booth 2” are pure fantasy. “Clueless” was too, of course, but at least it seemed to know it.