In 2018, a seemingly innocuous high school rom-com called The Kissing Booth became a Netflix hit with repeat viewership—an impressive feat, considering that Netflix never publishes its “ratings,” but did report to the New York Times that one in three viewers watched the film more than once. That’s 30 percent more than the normal rate. As someone curious about most culturally celebrated and critically confounding art, I watched the film and found myself impressed with both its optimism and painfully predictable plot, which registered like fanfiction come alive sans mythological creatures. (You know, the kind where 16-year-olds drive down the Pacific Coast Highway on motorcycles, exhibiting freedoms most parents would be pretty concerned about... but there are no vampires.) If movies could be naive, surely this one was.
The Kissing Booth had no nuance. It was too long, plot holes were filled by compounding sub-plots and, as Indiewire’s Kate Erbland wrote at the time, it took a “sexist and regressive look at relationships that highlights the worst impulses of the [teen rom-com] genre.” Then I learned The Kissing Booth was adapted from an original story published to Wattpad, a site best known for fan fiction, in 2011 by Beth Reekles, a 15-year-old living in Wales. No wonder the stilted construction reminded me of another surprising smash: 2019's After, the film adaptation of a very horny Harry Styles—excuse me, Hardin Scott—fan fic. These movies are teen fantasies written for teens by teens (or young twenty-somethings, in the case of Todd) meant to be enjoyed and not considered, to go down easy without a second thought—unless, of course, that thought is, “Let’s watch this again.” They are ostensibly criticism-proof. As lead actor, Joey King, told The Times last year, “[Critics] are forgetting what it’s like to watch a movie and not have to think about how happy you feel. The Kissing Booth just makes you feel good.” So I watched The Kissing Booth’s sequel, The Kissing Booth 2, to try to feel good.
Like the previous film, The Kissing Booth 2 exists in between teen tropes: most of the two-hour runtime is dedicated to wholesome teenage activities punctuated by relationship drama, not unlike Nickelodeon’s PG programming compared to Disney Channel’s G-spirit. Then the movie interrupts those moments with explicit sexual innuendo, flirting with language and sexual content that would readily receive a PG-13 or R-rating in theaters but is allowed to thrive in the genre ambiguity of a streaming giant—for example, a kissing booth to raise money for school is scandalizing for the middle school crowd, but protagonist Elle Evans (Joey King) telling boyfriend Noah Flynn (Jacob Elordi), “I’m going to treat you like my own personal jungle gym,” after an evening of underage carousing is truly salacious for a movie that, up until that point, described intimacy as a few boardgame nights in a house by the beach. (There is a sex scene, but it is brief and inconclusive, like much fanfiction.) Think American Pie-meets-A Cinderella Story. The combination works because it respects the in-betweenness of adolescence—and because the chemistry between actors is detectable, even when scenes onscreen feel improbable.
The main charm of fanfiction and amateur authorship (the work that gets the most clicks on Wattpad) is its accessibility. These self-publishing formats exist outside of traditional media; it is not meant to be reviewed in conventional spaces for an audience that values insightful criticism. It is a self-sustaining engine separate from traditional industry and studio systems, until it racks up so much popularity that Netflix sees the potential, signs the deal, and exposes millions more to the niche world. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Fifty Shades of Grey began as fanfic, after all, and it made a lot of money. In those instances, where words that are taken from a zealous young person resonate with other young people and grow organically in popularity, it’s positive digital community-building. When those same stories turn into hit movies or franchises, it’s clear that popularity does correspond to value, but of a different kind: monetary value.
The Kissing Booth doesn’t say much culturally, and it doesn’t try to. This is two hours of a distraction, of cheery crushes and little realism. For most viewers, that will prove to be enough. And I say that with full confidence: a third Kissing Booth movie is already on the way. For others, one viewing is enough to quench curiosity.
Kissing Booth 2 is currently streaming on Netflix.
Correction: A previous version of this post incorrectly identified The Kissing Booth 2 as “fan fiction” instead of an original work shared to self-publishing website Wattpad.