What do After and The Kissing Booth have in common besides being teen romances? They both started on Wattpad. Launched in 2006, the website and app is used by millions to read and publish works in multiple genres, from poetry to fan fiction. As the community grew, the website added contests and publishing opportunities for users on the site. This eventually culminated into some authors from the site receiving full book deals from legitimate publishers. Then of course, came the movies.
The Kissing Booth was published on Wattpad in 2011 and by 2013 was published by Penguin Random House. Five years later in May of 2018, a movie adaptation of the novel premiered on Netflix. In development at this time was the movie After. Originally a Harry Styles fanfiction, the male characters based off of One Direction members received name changes in the published and film versions. In 2019, the film was released in theaters and the fanbase the novel had acquired since the Wattpad days continued to grow.
Although both these films suffer from bad reviews – After currently sits at a 19% critic rating on Rotten Tomatoes while The Kissing Booth holds a 17% – they have both spawned their own franchises. The sequel to After is set to hit theaters in October 2020 and just released it’s first trailer. The Kissing Booth 2 shot to the top of the Netflix charts following its July 2020 release and a third installment was just announced.
It’s an interesting spot for both to be in. Viewed by so many as poorly made movies, but still bringing in plenty of views and even having super dedicated fanbases. That raises some questions. Are these movies simply a way to exploit a very young and impressionable fanbase? Is there any artistic merit to what most critics would write off as cringe-worthy teen romances?
While both franchises have plenty of fans, they have been met with their fair share of criticism. One of the main complaints for both is the dynamic between the two leads. Both movies have leaned in to the bad boy trope, and the way that plays out in terms of a romance is questionable for some. A lot of the discourse surrounding both stories revolves heavily around the romanticization of toxic traits and relationships.
It’s wrong to expect filmmakers and writers to create stories that are 100% free of drama and toxicity. But, when you’re marketing that product to a younger audience, there is a certain level of responsibility. By presenting controlling and abusive behaviors as love, that can translate into how young viewers handle their real-life relationships. Additionally, making it seem as if the female characters need to fix these damaged men in their lives sends a harmful message.
Some issues with After…
In After our male love interest is Hardin Scott, a tatted up mysterious man with a secret sensitive side. His relationship with the story’s main character Tessa begins in their freshman year of college, despite her having a boyfriend back home. Tessa is defined by her innocence and she is drawn to the unpredictable nature of Hardin. On the surface, this seems harmless, but upon a deeper look into the source material it is a bit troubling.
First of all, it’s revealed at the end of book one and the first movie that Hardin made a bet with his friends on whether or not he could make Tessa fall in love with him – in the book it was actually a bet on if he could take her virginity, but a PG-13 rating might have kept this plot line more tame. She is understandably betrayed and heartbroken, but this is clearly not the end of their story. There are two more installments after all. Hardin is also incredibly possessive over Tessa, he’s rude to her, and he’s got a violent streak, again more-so in the book than in the film adaptation.
These differences between film and book are important because the more problematic elements of the source material were altered. However, many fans of the original book actually didn’t love these changes. Many fans wanted a more mature story than the standard teen drama that they got, and by the looks of the sequel’s trailer, they may have gotten their wish.
The Kissing Booth
The Kissing Booth didn’t seem to cause as much backlash as After but it was not free from similar criticisms. The story follows the relationship between Elle and Noah, her best friends older brother. They lie and sneak around for part of the film, not much different from Hardin and Tessa, except Elle is lying to her best friend due to a “friendship rule” they have basically stating that Elle can’t date Noah. Drama ensues.
Noah has a lot of traits typical of these Wattpad bad boys. He tries to control aspects of Elle’s life, telling boys they can’t talk to her and sabotaging a date. He also can get pretty violent, and tackles and/or punches multiple people throughout the film. Elle is of course set up to be the girl that can change him. He has a soft spot for her and does show growth in the second film. He backs down from the opportunity to fight Elle’s other love interest and seems to have matured from his time in college.
In the second movie it is less apparent that Elle directly effects Noah’s ability to control his anger. That’s a step in the right direction. Not showing her being his sole motivation in being a better person depicts a much more healthy mindset.
But are they actually good?
Film critic caps on, let’s look into this. Despite the issues, the casts aren’t necessarily untalented, especially the leads in The Kissing Booth. Joey King gave a great performance in Hulu’s The Act, and Jacob Elordi was a stand-out in HBO’s Euphoria. In both stories though, any talent the leads possess is masked. It’s most definitely a product of bad writing. Also there’s the fact that a lot of the characters you’re meant to root for are simply unlikable.
Tessa cheats on her boyfriend multiple times, Elle lies to her best friend – and spoiler alert cheats on Noah in the sequel. Hardin betrays Tessa’s trust, Noah has violent outbursts. Elle’s best friend is completely unsupportive of her strong feelings for his brother, Tessa’s friends don’t tell her about the bet even though they all knew. The list goes on and on.
In terms of cinematography, basic filmmaking, all that, theres nothing special here. The Kissing Booth might have the edge on being the worst because of the jarring editing choices and oversaturated color palette. It also can’t decide what it wants to be, mixing comedic and dramatic elements in a way that makes no sense and has characters crying in one scene and goofing around in the next.
After is just a whole lot of nothing. Music montages run rampant, and the decision to axe the more problematic elements from the book make it pretty boring. By the end you don’t feel invested in the characters or their love story.
So the verdict? These movies certainly aren’t good. Maybe for watch parties or drinking games, but you won’t see these movies winning anything more important than a Teen Choice Award. And that’s okay in a sense, things can be trashy and cheesy and fun. But maybe while they’re doing that, they could also hold off on the romanticization of toxic traits and relationships.
There are plenty of cute teen dramas or romcoms out there, but these aren’t them.
Cover photos via iMDB