The Kissing Booth 2 is two hours and ten minutes long. I just felt the need to get that out of there before we continue this review. I don’t need anyone complaining about the length of Scorsese movies anymore, okay?
2018’s The Kissing Booth was a surprise mega-hit for Netflix (or, at least according to their impenetrable viewership numbers that we should never trust.) It helped to kick off their so-called Summer of Love alongside titles like To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before and Sierra Burgess Is a Loser, as well as acting as a handy reminder that yes, people still love rom-coms. Based on a YA novel by Beth Reekles, the movie made a splash by being both hugely popular with its target audience and being deemed ‘objectively bad’ by critics. It’s not a great movie. Really, it’s not even a good one. Where To All the Boys was refreshing in its charm and spin on familiar tropes, The Kissing Booth regurgitated every sexist cliché in the book.
No disrespect to Reekles, who is way more successful as a writer than I’ll ever be, but it was clear from the get-go that The Kissing Booth was written by an adolescent. She famously posted the story to Wattpad before landing a major publishing deal at the age of 17, and the paperbacks that ended up on many a teen’s bookshelf differed very little from the internet version. It was the kind of story you write as a kid for practice, only Reekles got hers picked up by a real publisher. They did a disservice in not allowing the author some time to fully go over her own work before going to the presses, and it shows. The film did nothing to rectify its many glaring issues. For instance, the heroine has a semi-forbidden romance with her best friend’s bad-boy older brother. The protagonist was frequently slut-shamed, the love interest was a possessive creep who constantly beat up people, and every sh*tty thing he did was written off with a hand-wave of, ‘oh but he’s so baaaaaaad.’ If you read a lot of romance novels or this particular era of YA—mid-Twilight and around the time that ‘New Adult’ became a thing—then this will all seem exhaustingly trite. It was, even in book form, but seeing it transferred to the big screen with no self-awareness only drove home just how archaic its mindset was. The Kissing Booth was one of those YA movies that people who hate the genre got to point to as ‘proof’ that they were all not only creatively bad but societally problematic.
Still, the movie was a hit and so a sequel was inevitable. Fortunately, this film is a welcome improvement in practically every way.
Elle, played by Joey King, is now entering her senior year at the most ridiculously lavish high school in California, all while trying to maintain a long-distance relationship with Harvard hunk Noah. Matters are, of course, complicated by the difficulties of burgeoning adulthood, from university applications to the oddly muscled new guy in school, to panicking over the gorgeous Harvard woman who totally doesn’t make her jealous.
Thankfully, this movie has learned a few crucial lessons from its predecessor. It’s WAY less creepy and sexist than the film that started it all. The Kissing Booth was curiously aggressive in its central ‘romance’ and deployed every unnerving ‘bad boy’ cliché to justify some of its more regressive attitudes. It wasn’t especially romantic or funny, but with number two, the film lets loose and focuses on the real shining light of the story: Joey King. In-between kissing booth sessions, King landed a whole bunch of award nominations for her stirring and tragic dramatic turn in The Act, but here, she gets to show off just how talented a comedic actress she is. The film practically bends over backward to allow her the space to demonstrate her slapstick abilities and she possesses a real flair for this kind of rat-a-tat-tat dialogue (even if the script isn’t quite on the level of classic screwball.) She’s giving the kind of performance here that single-handedly drags the movie up to watchable and should land her a slew of starring opportunities in the future.
At TWO HOURS AND TEN MINUTES LONG, there’s enough action going on in The Kissing Booth 2 to fill out a whole season of TV, had Netflix chosen to do so. Frankly, you can’t help but wonder why they didn’t take that step given that the movie often feels simultaneously overstuffed and baggy. A lot of that running time is filled up with side stories focused on Elle’s best friend and his relationship troubles, as well as Noah’s Harvard life with the obvious ‘other girl.’ It’s a shame because when the movie works, it works, but it’s let down by the sheer need to shove in every single beat, twist, and trope before Netflix auto-plays its true-crime series of the week.
The movie is as predictable as you’re imagining it is, to the point where it almost feels like the Rosetta Stone of rom-coms (yes, there’s an airport chase.) That doesn’t mean it’s totally bereft of surprises. When the film slows down and allows itself and King some room to breathe, it hints at a much wider emotional depth. King in particular kills it in these moments, especially in one Thanksgiving dinner scene where she out-acts everyone else at the table. Sadly, those moments are few and far between, especially with this interminable running time. The closer it gets to nervier truths about young romance and its unfeasibility in the real world, the more intriguing the movie becomes. This is still; however, a teen rom-com and you know it has to play it safe. That’s fine but you still want more. This is also one of the rare teen-focused rom-coms where the protagonists have sex and it’s shown as a positive moment bereft of forced drama or lessons to be learned.
Honestly, The Kissing Booth 2 is such a marked improvement on its predecessor that it’s a shame it doesn’t entirely drop the clichés that the first movie established. They were tired beforehand but now they’re so awkwardly forced into the narrative that they feel like an active drag on proceedings. The trio of token popular girls who all speak in unison and the array of high school movie archetypes are really unnecessary now, especially when King and her central cast are doing such a good job. Their high school continues to be the most ridiculously over-the-top rich-person place on the planet, which does diffuse much of the drama over Elle trying to raise money for college. If she’s attending this school and has a house like something out of a Real Housewives franchise then it’s tough to swallow the notion of her feeling the pinch of a crumbling economy. Silicon Valley is less fancy than this school! The eponymous kissing booth looks like it could have been made for an HBO series! Then again, the median student age in this institution does seem to be about 28 so maybe they’re all working full-time tech jobs to pay for it all.
Is The Kissing Booth 2 worth your time, as predictable and overlong as it is? Sure. If you’ve already watched the To All The Boys movies endlessly and need a change of scenery, you’ll get that itch suitably scratched here, although the real highlights are in the comedy over the romance, especially when it comes to Joey King being effervescent. Just skip the first movie and move onto this one. But seriously, it is two hours and ten minutes long.
The Kissing Booth 2 is available to watch on Netflix now.
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