How many movies does it take to tell a story about high school senior Elle Evans (Joey King) trying to decide whether to honor her friendship to lifelong bestie Lee (Joel Courtney) or break the “rules” by dating his smoking-hot older brother Noah (Jacob Elordi)? If you’re Netflix — the content factory that milked “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” for its full trilogy potential — then the answer is three, obviously. Except the makers of “The Kissing Booth” didn’t have a solid book series to fall back on (young author Beth Reekles was 15 when she wrote the original, and the sequels have been afterthoughts), nor a compelling romantic rivalry to stretch across multiple movies.
What they did have was the data to suggest audiences wanted more. I too wanted more — less of the same, but a little substance for a change. How great would it be if Elle found enough self-respect to pursue her own dreams, rather than deciding her future according to which of the Flynn bros’ hearts she least wants to break? Spoiler alert: “The Kissing Booth 3” offers some of both — that is, there’s plenty of fan service (including a whole new list for Ellie and Lee to exhaust), but also a late-arriving sense of identity that gives this junk-food sequel just enough nutritional value to help its young audiences reconsider how to decide their own post-high school priorities.
Last time we saw Elle, she had been accepted to two universities: UC Berkeley, which she and Lee had always planned on attending, or Harvard, where Noah suggests they get an apartment together. You don’t have to be a geography major to recognize that these two schools are located on opposite sides of the country. And speaking of majors, what is it that Elle wants to do with her life anyway? She’s vaguely described as “brilliant” in the series (which director Vince Marcello has overseen since the beginning, maintaining a consistently chipper, Disney Channel vibe). But what does that mean?
The short answer: It means that ought to have more than snogging Noah to look forward to in her life, and though this franchise may have been conceived as a naive teen fantasy, it’s not too late to give the character some dimension. Mind you, that’s all packed into the last half-hour of a movie that remains stubbornly content to trade in worn-out teen-movie clichés, as Elle finds herself mixed up in one petty misunderstanding after another.
After doing the single dad thing for half a dozen years, Mr. Evans (Stephen Jennings) — who was barely a character in the previous movies — is trying to start another relationship of her own, but Elle is too self-absorbed to give the woman (Bianca Amato) a chance. Then again, she has her hands full, having to get a summer job, take care of her younger brother (Carson White), etc. It’s the summer before she and Lee are supposed to head off to college, and Mrs. Flynn (Molly Ringwald, whose own YA hits Millennials would do well to investigate) has decided to sell the beach house.
The “kids” convince her to let them fix it up over the summer, although no one’s fooled: They’ve just been handed the keys to the ultimate party pad, and the movie it too basic to engage with any of the ways that might go wrong. One of Noah’s old crushes (Maisie Richardson-Sellers) decides to crash with them, causing Elle to get jealous. She reciprocates by striking things back up with Marco (Taylor Zakhar Perez), the boy she kissed in front of Noah in the previous movie. Are we really worried that either of these rivals will upset the couple? This movie has all the complexity of a shampoo commercial
Basically, before the brothers go their separate ways, the close-knit trio is determined to make this the most memorable summer ever — which is a recipe for “The Kissing Booth 3” to cram in everything from skydiving to sumo wrestling (all to-do items on the Bucket Beach List that Elle unearths in an old Mario Kart lunchbox). But it’s also a sad way of acknowledging that these three characters may be peaking before their lives have even begun, and experiencing these activities in montage form isn’t an effective way for audiences to live them vicariously.
With all that fun out of the way, the characters finally start behaving like adults in the film’s final stretch: The pressure’s on for all involved to tie things up well, and even if all that’s come before feels generic (keep in mind that tweens haven’t necessarily seen the bajillion other TV series and movies Marcello and company so shamelessly recycle), what really matters here is how “The Kissing Booth” movies will end, since that’s what fans will remember. Here, Orson Welles’ adage comes in handy: “If you want a happy ending, that depends, of course, on where you stop your story.”
“The Kissing Booth 3” could have gone out on a conventional romantic note — say, ending on a kiss — as if to suggest Elle and Noah (who have all the chemistry of a pair of telethon co-hosts) will grow old and gray together. Instead, the film leaves things surprisingly uncertain, while inventing for Elle a whole list of ambitions that hadn’t even been hinted at until this point. Then it skips forward six years till everyone’s out of school, finding Elle so transformed that I found myself wishing the film had been about those intervening years, in which she develops a personality. But maybe it’s enough to know that she eventually managed to find one.