Netflix’s much-beloved 2018 “Summer Of Love” lineup came with one major misfire: Vince Marcello’s regressive, all-around-unsettling teen rom-com The Kissing Booth, a film whose central aim seemed to be to get its 16-year-old female protagonist undressed as often as possible. Coupled with a male romantic lead who uncomfortably toed the line between “endearing bad boy” and “violent sociopath,” The Kissing Booth indulged all the worst impulses of the romantic comedy genre. But since its story of a girl falling for her best friend’s older brother reportedly became one of the most watched (and rewatched) films on Netflix, its sequel arrives just in time for the lazy, hazy days of this socially distant summer. (If the idea of a high school kissing booth felt antiquated in 2018, it’s really out of touch with our current moment.)
To his credit, Marcello—who returns to write and direct the sequel—seems to have taken criticism of the first film to heart. The Kissing Booth 2 drops the misogynistic undertones of the original, and Joey King’s Elle Evans stays mercifully clothed throughout. Her newly long-distance boyfriend, Noah Flynn (Jacob Elordi), has been refashioned as less of a violent delinquent and more of a softboy with communication issues. The film even digs into the intricacies of female friendship as Elle navigates her relationship with Rachel (Meganne Young), the new girlfriend of longtime best friend Lee Flynn (Joel Courtney).
And yet, without the outdated gender politics to gawk at, The Kissing Booth 2 is mostly just boring. Like the similarly episodic, under-baked Netflix rom-com sequel To All The Boys: P.S. I Still Love You, The Kissing Booth 2 doesn’t quite know how to extend its premise into a second feature. (Marcello lampshades that with a meta scene in which Elle and Lee get the green light to restage their kissing booth fundraiser, only for their student council to warn, “Last year’s gonna be hard to top.”) In broadening the world of the first film without really deepening it, The Kissing Booth 2 often feels more like a spinoff TV series—although at an unconscionable 132 minutes long, it’s hardly a breezy watch.
The plot, in so much as there is one, involves two potential foils for Elle and Noah’s relationship. While Noah’s getting chummy with elegant Harvard pal Chloe (Maisie Richardson-Sellers), Elle is thrown together with hunky new classmate Marco (Taylor Zakhar Perez). He’s the only dancer at her school talented enough to help her win the $50,000 prize at a “Dance Dance Mania” tournament that looks like the opening ceremony of The Hunger Games. Elle needs the money because she’s thinking about going to college with Noah in Boston the following year—never mind that she’s long promised Lee they’d attend Berkeley together.
Elle and Lee’s strange, codependent dynamic is The Kissing Booth 2’s most interesting relationship. (It helps that King and Courtney are far and away the film’s most charming performers). This franchise answers the question “Can men and women just be friends?” with a resounding yes, but also acknowledges those friendships can sometimes feel different than same-gender ones; there’s a smartly observed silent negotiation over whether Lee’s best friend or girlfriend gets the prime front seat spot. Unfortunately, when it comes to Elle’s romantic life, The Kissing Booth 2 is much less original. Perez is marginally more charismatic than Elordi, especially since the film allows him to sing and dance his way into Elle’s heart. But neither are as compelling as the question of why Elle’s high school is full of teenage boys who look like adult Marvel superheroes.
The Kissing Booth 2 has good intentions—much more so than the first film, at least. It wants to tell a story about the importance of communication, both in romantic relationships and close friendships. Yet when its teenage characters are as removed from real life as these ones are, it’s hard to imagine that message landing with any actual force. In how blatantly The Kissing Booth 2 teases a third installment, however, it looks like this franchise is aiming for at least one more chance to get the balance right.