Can girls fight back yet? Teen stories that do what ‘The Kissing Booth’ fails to
Written and directed by Vince Marello and adapted from the Beth Reekles novel of the same name, Netflix Originals movie The Kissing Booth isn’t the sort of teenage romcom that deserves any screen space in 2018. If you haven’t wasted any time on the movie or simply couldn’t make it past the first ten minutes, the film is essentially about an adorable (if occasionally toxic) friendship between lifelong besties Elle (Joey King) and Lee (Joel Courtney). The friendship is thrown into turmoil when Elle breaks the first rule of bud club by developing some serious hots for Lee’s violent asshole brother Noah (Jacob Elordi).
We’ll be the first to admit there’s a devastating allure to bad boys in teen shows and movies, so we get why Elle is leaving a snail trail of hormones towards him. Think of Patrick Verona (Heath Ledger) in 10 Things I Hate About You throwing death stares to boys in the science lab, Jess Mariano (Milo Ventimiglia) skipping school to brood over punk rock in Gilmore Girls, or (lawd have mercy) Jared Leto as Jordan Catalano in My So-Called Life being conspicuously awful to the girl he’s secretly in love with. Where all these bad boys differ from the piece of shit asshole in The Kissing Booth is that all of them were provided a character arc where they suffered for their sins, learned their lesson, and came back renewed and adorable. Furthermore, all these characters have a bad reputation that is later revealed to be at odds with the sweet baby angels they actually are deep down.
However, in The Kissing Booth Noah’s bad reputation is completely valid. His one personality trait – apart from looking impossibly dreamy and being Lee’s big brother – is that he loves getting into fights. He’s the biggest punch thrower since Ryan Atwood (Benjamin McKenzie) took one on the chin while some rich kid yelled “Welcome to the O.C., bitch!” in his face at a party. It’s such a big issue that Elle tells him he has to quit this bad habit if he wants to get with her and we also find out his family have sent him to counseling to fix the issue before giving up and just leaving him to it. “That’s kinda just how I’m wired,” he points out in the most “oh, fair enough” statement ever raised in defence of a man’s violent nature.
Because it’s 2018 and not 1982 anymore, you’d be safe to assume the movie heads towards a satisfying finale where Noah takes actual measures to figure out why he’s “wired” for violence and to stop it before he kills someone. But you’d also hope that Elle won’t just settle for his bullshit and will concentrate on her own worth instead of wasting it on him. But she doesn’t. They get together before he heads off for college and the film finishes with her musing, “I knew there was a part of me that was always going to belong to Noah Flynn,” as though he’s a sea witch that has secretly stolen her voice. In a way, perhaps he has.
By comparison, Riverdale is full of bad boys and violence, but it’s never delivered in the manner of The Kissing Booth where the film portrays an antiquated theory that boys will be boys and women should just shut up and deal with it – possibly even enjoy it. The last time a high school boy stepped out of line with the girls in Riverdale, Veronica (Camila Mendes) and Betty (Lili Reinhart) weren’t swooning over the asshole – they seduced him under false pretences and tortured the shit out of him to teach him a lesson.
Likewise, it isn’t enough that The Kissing Booth simply throws Noah into a leather jacket, onto a motorbike, and into a million random fights just to give him the apparently hot gravitas of being bad. That might have worked with John Travolta in Grease, but come on. Riverdale has its very own leather-wearing, motorbike-riding badboy, but he isn’t just a fist swinging ape grunting about being “wired” wrong. Jughead Jones (Cole Sprouse) is given dimension and depth. The character may have once carved a woman’s tattoo off her arm yet he at least understands why he’s committing the violence and has sweetness and remorse underneath all the bravado and passion.
Where The Kissing Booth also feels unnaturally dated is in its treatment of Elle. At the beginning of the film she splits her only pair of school-issued trousers (classic!) and is forced to wear an old school issued skirt that’s now about three sizes too short for her. Naturally, this results in her being catcalled by her fellow students and even slapped on the ass by one. She’s humiliated by the ordeal and clearly nervous about how to deal with it. Despite her insistence that “it’s fine” and she’s “got this”, she clearly doesn’t. Instead, Lee speaks up for her and Noah swoops in with his fist to save the day because goodness knows a woman can’t do either of those things herself.
Though every woman can likely relate to Elle’s embarrassment in the scene on some level, the movie offers a regressive take on it. Nobody knows how to act as a teenage girl when this sort of shit unexpectedly happens to you. But these sorts of ordeals are made especially more difficult when content like The Kissing Booth teaches you to feel shame for it and to need boys to step in and defend you. Whatever you do, don’t try to handle it yourself, ladies!
Which is ludicrous and outdated beyond belief. There have been similar scenes in other shows and films for decades that have dealt with such a situation far better. In Veronica Mars, everyone’s favorite teenage private eye (Kristen Bell) is forced to wear a tiny cheerleader outfit after her clothes are destroyed by some mean girls after gym class. Despite a series of catcalls being hurled at her as she strolls through the halls, the words bounce off her like bullets hitting Superman. She refuses to be shamed for her body and smiles her way through the ordeal as she plots all the ways she can reap revenge on her fellow students.
Or think about the scene in Mean Girls where Janis (Lizzy Caplan) cuts holes in Regina George’s (Rachel McAdams) top so her bra is obviously and ridiculously exposed to the whole school. Instead of being shamed for it, Regina shrugs it off, owns the look, and turns it into a fashion statement. The next day in school, every girl is wearing her top the exact same way. Imagine how much better The Kissing Booth could have been had the same scene shown Elle flipping the bird to all the assholes staring at her, owning her look, or punching the asshole that groped her herself. Because that’s the teen film we want to see in 2018. Not this steaming shitpile of slut shaming and weak women.
Teenagers deserve better than this. But at least they have other classic teen TV shows and movies to watch that offer better role models, statements, and guidance for enduring those tricky coming-of-age years better than The Kissing Booth does.