On May 11th, following critically-acclaimed teen films like LADY BIRD and LOVE, SIMON, Netflix served up their offering to the genre: THE KISSING BOOTH. And critics hated it.

Here’s a rundown of the controversial storyline. Sixteen-year-old Elle Evans (Joey King) is best friends with Lee Flynn (Joel Courtney) and has a crush on his older brother Noah, a bad boy prone to getting into fights (Jacob Elordi). However, because of a set of rules she made with Lee when they were younger, Noah is off-limits. But then one day Elle locks lips with him at a kissing booth she’s running. She has to decide: Is being with Noah worth losing her best friend over?

the kissing booth poster
Image courtesy of Netflix

The film has received a whopping 13% on Rotten Tomatoes. Reviewers have described it as “sexist and regressive” and “lazy and amateur.” Many outlets have called out how problematic the plot is, with one arguing that

“it perpetuates the male gaze, abusive relationships, toxic masculinity, underage drinking, and sexual assault.” 

Although some viewers agreed, the film was overall a massive success among audiences. Netflix’s chief content officer Ted Sarandos told Vulture that THE KISSING BOOTH was “one of the most-watched movies in the country, and maybe in the world” at the time. One in three viewers has rewatched the film, a figure 30% higher than average for Netflix.

The teen stars have also gained massive followings. Joey King and Jacob Elordi have both gained about five million Instagram followers since the movie’s release. So why have millions of people flocked to this film and stood by it, despite scathing reviews?

By A Teen, For Teens

Teen films that are critical successes, like LADY BIRD and THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN, tend to hold the perspective of a grown adult looking back on their younger self. They make it very clear what the naive main character’s errors are, what impacts them in ways they don’t realize, and what they should do more of (like talking to their mother). As a result, adult critics connect to these films more than teenagers, who may feel like they’re being preached at.

beth reekles the kissing booth
Beth Reekles holding a copy of her book. Image courtesy of Barnet Borough Times

Alternatively, THE KISSING BOOTH may have attracted a large teen audience because the story came from a real teen’s perspective. It was based on a popular Wattpad book that Beth Reekles began writing in 2011 when she was fifteen. Scoring over 19 million views, the book established a fan base for the movie, which certainly also fueled word-of-mouth.

Characters like Lady Bird and Nadine from THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN make stupid, regrettable choices for adults to watch them and feel like they understand the teenage experience. Elle makes stupid, regrettable choices for teenagers to live out their fantasies without consequences. Dating a hot senior, drinking as much as you want, and getting in with the cool girls? It’s the teenage dream! (And for most people, will stay a dream.)

Even the stars took a more lighthearted, anything-goes view of the movie. Jacob Elordi, who played Noah, commented,

“I feel like everyone is trying to be edgy and dark all the time, and this kind of just proves that kids still want to be kids and dream a little bit.”

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Disagreement Over The Movie’s Purpose

Practically no teenagers are prominent critics or writers, so their opinions and tastes were ignored by reviewers. Lead actress Joey King remarked,

“The problem with critics, not to bash on them, is that when they’re watching a movie, they’re looking for very specific things…‘The Kissing Booth’ just makes you feel good.” 

Critics focused on the movie’s themes and values: What does it teach its viewers? How does it improve society? They were alarmed by the occurrences of sexism and violence, leading them to give THE KISSING BOOTH a thumbs down. Kate Erbland of IndieWire wrote,

“The seemingly fluffy rom-com is rife with sexist rhetoric, casual slut-shaming, and a ‘bad boy’ lead.”

Other critics saw the potential for an empowering movie filled with positive messages. They expressed their disappointment through negative reviews. Tess Cagle wrote for The Daily Dot,

“The Kissing Booth had great potential to be a body-positive, coming-of-age film, where a young woman learns about her autonomy and to not allow the men in her life to police her body.” 

the kissing booth cast
Image courtesy of Rachel Murray and Getty Images

Many Netflix viewers, on the other hand, forgave or brushed away the underlying themes. Others were swayed by the cast’s real-life chemistry — King and Elordi are currently dating and friendly with Courtney — in addition to the film’s feel-good vibes.

Maybe they had a point in not taking the film so seriously. The main character strips to her bra in the boy’s locker room and dances around loses her virginity next to the Hollywood sign. And, at one point, says to the principal earnestly, “Dude touched my lady bump.”

The film never really tried to be the morally correct experience that reviewers claimed it failed at.

The Power of Nostalgia

The wild success of STRANGER THINGS and IT proved that nostalgia can get us to salivate like Pavlov’s dogs. THE KISSING BOOTH knew this and cherry-picked memorable elements from classic 80s and 90s teen films.

Elle’s character recalls Kat from 10 THINGS I HATE ABOUT YOU, Brat Pack member Molly Ringwald shows up as the Flynn brothers’ mother, and “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” plays during the required prom scene. This led Vulture to describe the film as “bad in a comforting way” because “most of the plot points and supporting characters are blatant rip-offs of earlier teen films.”

the kissing booth
Image courtesy of Netflix

The nostalgia is particularly effective because the romantic comedy has become an endangered genre. THE KISSING BOOTH’s director and screenwriter Vince Marcello noted, “The John Hughes films and movies like ‘10 Things I Hate About You’ were formative for me. Hollywood hasn’t been making those kinds of films in recent years, and that’s the reason we’re so hungry for them.”

Film critic Lindsey Bahr from the Associated Press attributes this dearth to an increased focus on “franchises and superheroes and intellectual property that will make guaranteed money for the shareholders and play internationally.” She said, “So many people I’ve talked to over the past few years, including [director] Nancy Meyers, have said that the powers that be in Hollywood love romantic comedies but ‘can’t make them right now.’”

Netflix has helped end the rom-com drought with THE KISSING BOOTH (and SET IT UP a month later). A cool glass of water tastes better when you’re thirsty.

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Were THE KISSING BOOTH Critics Wrong?

The job of critics is complex and varying. But most can agree that they are supposed to at least answer this question: Should people see the film? With THE KISSING BOOTH, critics seemingly tried to prevent audiences from watching a movie they actually wanted to see. But that’s only because they believed audiences deserved better. Movies that are moving, original, and significant to the cultural conversation. 

It would be tiring if every single film lived up to those standards, however. THE KISSING BOOTH may have fallen through the critics’ cracks, but it was the perfect fare for millions of others.

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