by Ken Bakely
I’ve recently caught up with two of 2018’s most discussed coming of age films – Greg Berlanti’s Love, Simon and Vince Marcello’s The Kissing Booth – and, beyond the notion that the quality of the two films are intensely disparate, it provides a point of interest in the contemporary thematic and aesthetic expectations of movies about teenagers.
There’s a misconception that movies about, and made for, teenagers are a one-size-fits-all proposition. Looking at them from a more literal level, yes, they’re mostly set in high school, about tumultuous social relationships, and carry a kind of gentle sets of problems; the kind of low-stakes, high-tension rapid gossip spread that anyone who’s graduated can rest assured that they no longer have to deal with. And when Lady Bird, a classically molded coming of age movie which carries the format to such ecstatic heights that it rode its way to a Best Picture nomination, has caused such a splash in the film world, perhaps there’s a bit of subconscious attention directed to what this subgenre means.
Love, Simon has received most of its attention because of its status as the first major studio film about a teenager’s coming out journey. Berlanti adapts Becky Albertalli’s sweetly inoffensive novel into a sweetly inoffensive movie. But what’s most effective about Love, Simon is its entrenched normality. Despite Nick Robinson’s Simon having to utter the phrase “I’m just like you” in a suspiciously forceful register, maybe to placate the last holdouts in the audience, it rarely undersells the notion that the experience depicted is individualistic in real life.
In the tradition of classic young adult tales, it’s a tale from idyllic suburbia. Characters have stable, loving family lives, and reside in generously sized Nancy Meyers houses. It immediately activates our preconception of what it means to be an American teenager in an American movie, and Berlanti uses that point of association to work in an underrepresented narrative into the fabric of familiar cinematic language. Love, Simon works because it’s familiar, and its cleverly drawn and fully thought through characters feel as identifiable as they could be.
Contrast that with The Kissing Booth, Netflix’s insanely popular disaster, which takes these notions of signaling, identifying with a teenaged audience, and focusing on its ideas against the dissonance which forms comedy, and completely fails to land them – but not without indicating that it was trying to do it first. Telling the story of Elle (Joey King) and Lee (Joel Courtney), two lifelong best friends torn apart by Elle’s crush on Lee’s brother Noah (Jacob Elordi), the film is harshly concocted and thoughtlessly realized. Beneath the flat sitcom lighting is a flat sitcom setup: a meandering, teeming conflict with repetitive jokes that cascade between kid-targeted physical comedy and teen-targeted innuendo. The result is that the movie comes off as pandering to both extremes, and satisfies no one.
It treats the viewer as a target, subduing them with as many wildly pitched jokes as possible, and using the notion of self-awareness as a substitute for the real thing. A few late references to “cheesy” teen movie staples and romantic genre clichés only prove to aggravate these issues. Its desire to be subversive is undone by its admiration for the generic and its failure to understand why the generic structure so often works in this field. This is to say nothing of The Kissing Booth’s regressive politics, which it cuts both ways with. Male characters openly manipulate Elle and subject her to much stigmatization, and the movie finds great humor in how each comic setpiece can end with the objectification of a high school junior. The occasions in which Elle attempts to fight back at the demeaning treatment she’s been subject to worsens things. It shows that Marcello understands that the way other characters act is wrong, but presents the gags from their side in the hopes of squeezing out a few more laughs, trying to have his cake and eat it too.
A movie must understand how it’s perceived, the world it exists in, and how those rules can be both adhered to and broken. The Kissing Booth is more than just a single shot in the dark, it’s full Gatling fire. It absorbs every signal of timing, aesthetic, and theme, and regurgitates them as an incoherent slush. It lacks the sensitivity of its most emotionally involving moments, and it lacks the irreverence of its most elaborate slapstick scenarios.
The coming of age movie is much more susceptible to its own case precedent than most other kinds of films. Occupying a key cultural space, in which decades of entries have shaped not only other movies, but our real-life parallels, each new coming of age tale enters a world in which everything has been done before. Whereas an action or horror title might seek a fresh spin on the familiar, it’s hard to find a new angle in the American teen movie. Instead, old ideas are filtered through new lenses, projecting the changes in cultural adolescence through tried and true rhythms. A great movie about teenagers is also nostalgic fodder for adults, allowing people who have advanced far past sixteen candles on their cake to view their own memories through a sepia tone a little bit bolder and more ideal. (When there isn’t a chronological translation, this effect is even more pronounced. Consider how fiercely countless early 2000s high school grads fell in love with Lady Bird.) For those of us still young, it gives us a fantasy we can either connect to our current experiences, or one we can knowingly identify our own, still-fresh memories within particular moments or beats.
This particular cross-section, between Love, Simon and The Kissing Booth, provides a solid test for this thesis. One film works because it understands the introspective nature of its signals, and the other does not work because it has imitated those signals from other movies without understanding what they mean. Another argument for this: 20th Century Fox advertised Love, Simon as a movie for everyone of all demographic groups, marketing on over-the-air TV with the same intensity as its social media outreach. Netflix quietly dumped The Kissing Booth (though to be fair, it does this with even its best titles), and has only moved it to regular front-page rotation because viewers happened to find it.