The Kissing Booth 3 finally puts itself first

Jenna Guillaume on the importance of teen independence

You’re reading Scene & Heard, a weekly newsletter where I chat to a guest writer about the one scene from a recent Netflix release that left them floored. It’s part of Netflix Pause, a publication that’s all about hitting pause to reflect on the latest film and TV. Subscribe now to get it in your inbox every week diving into screen culture.

I’m Michael Sun, Netflix Culture Editor at Junkee and this is my final newsletter! From this Friday, you’ll be joined by familiar face and Netflix Pause contributor Jared Richards.

For my last Scene & Heard, I chat to entertainment writer and YA author Jenna Guillaume on the one scene from The Kissing Booth 3 where — after a series coloured by romantic angst — our protagonist finally chooses herself, and it’s wondrous.

MS: It has truly been a rollercoaster with The Kissing Booth. These characters have fallen in love, fallen out of love, betrayed each other, hooked up under the H of the Hollywood sign, and — most shockingly of all — been offered acceptances to both Harvard and Berkeley seemingly without any studying. That is what I call truly aspirational. There is a scene in The Kissing Booth 3, though, that finally breaks out of its mould for just a moment…

JG: I love your perfect summary of this film trilogy. It’s been quite a ride as we’ve watched Elle’s angst-filled romance with teenage hunk Noah alongside her angst-filled friendship with his younger brother Lee. The boys each wanted her attention all to themselves, while she feels torn between her love for both of them, always running around in circles to try and please both and winding up with no one happy, least of all herself. 

While the three characters seemed to have found somewhat of a balance in their dynamic over the first and second movies, these old tensions resurface again at the start of The Kissing Booth 3, as Elle has to choose between going to Harvard or Berkeley (it’s a hard life!). In typical Elle fashion, she’s basing her decision entirely around the two boys, and whether she wants Noah (Harvard) or Lee (Berkeley) more. 

She ends up choosing the boyfriend (horniness always wins) and look, as someone who navigated the high school-to-uni transition in my own teen relationship, I was left screaming at my screen that she had made a huge mistake. I wanted her to stop and think for a moment about what she wanted — not just with college, but her career too. She didn’t seem to be taking any feelings other than romantic (and aforementioned horny) into consideration. She desperately needed a non-Lee friend to shake her and tell her to forget about boys for a few minutes and think for herself.

But then a funny thing happens. In the final act of the film, after lots of angst with both Noah and Lee, Elle finally has her lightbulb moment. She becomes her own best friend. The scene I’ve chosen is where she tells Lee that she’s finally learned this vital lesson: she has spent her whole life putting her relationships with the boys first, at the expense of herself and her own happiness, and she needs to stop doing that. 

I actually stood up and cheered at this moment. It’s what I had been waiting for since the start, and I was so glad Elle finally got there. Particularly because, as frustrating as Elle’s behaviour was at times over the course of the trilogy, it was also understandable. Girls are all too often raised and socialised to be people-pleasers and to put other people’s feelings before their own — especially when it comes to boys. To see a teen girl protagonist articulate how she had done this and finally put herself first was quite powerful.

You’re 100% right. It feels powerful because it’s the first time in the entire series that — to paraphrase Molly Ringwald’s iconic guest appearance — Elle actually thinks about what she wants. It’s a definitive statement especially for viewers at an age that can feel fraught with precarity — where love (and horniness) can exert undue force over your decisions.

Yeah, and I think our culture and a lot of teen media in particular really reinforces that messaging. I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately — like, a big example is the whole “didn’t go to Paris trope”. LC on The Hills, Joey on Dawson’s Creek … there are so many instances of girls choosing love over career/creativity/themselves. And it almost always blows up in their faces because the guys are just never, ever worth it. 

I think what The Kissing Booth does well is allow Elle to be unashamedly horny (especially in the first movie!) before bringing her to a place where she has, er, more varied interests and priorities.

I actually think these narratives, for me personally, kind of had the opposite effect when I was a teen. I remember all of my friends just getting SO wrapped up in their boyfriends, and talking about how they were going to stay with them forever, and sometimes really changed themselves to please these guys. When I got into a relationship myself, I was really conscious of maintaining my independence and being realistic — we were 16, so I was like “I don’t know if we’ll get married, probably not???”. Spoiler alert: we did get married, many years later. But I think that early foundation is a reason why we stayed together — we still very much had our own lives, were our own people, and never held each other back. 

Jenna, you are also famously a YA author, so you know the landscape better than anyone: is this kind of independence important in your own work too?

SO important. Since I write teen romance, it’s a convention of the genre that it has to have a happy ending — meaning happily coupled up — but I always want to make it feel like a “happy for now” rather than a “happily ever after”. I also put a lot of emphasis on each protagonist’s own internal journey and the things happening in her life so it’s not all about the romance. I remember saying to my friends when I was a teen that romantic love is just the icing on what is already a really tasty cake of a life. I think my metaphors have improved since then, but it’s a message I still think is important. 

And it’s not necessarily there at the start of a story — I would say that Katie, main character in my second book, You Were Made For Me, is a bit like Elle in that her brain is dominated by boys in the beginning. I wanted to show that was normal and that teen girl thirst is something to be celebrated, while also taking Katie on a journey of learning — about herself, the value of her friendships, and what’s really important to her (hint: not boys. Well, not just boys). 

Likewise, I think what The Kissing Booth does well is allow Elle to be unashamedly horny (especially in the first movie!) before bringing her to a place where she has, er, more varied interests and priorities (not that the horniness ever goes away).

Sigh…we will truly never escape horny teens in this newsletter, which is a fate I have come to accept. I wonder where Elle’s newfound independence in this scene fits in the landscape of contemporary teen cinema. Is it indicative of a larger trend?

Oh Michael. Inside, we are all still just horny teens. 

I think themes of independence are kind of inherent in teen cinema. That’s really what your teen years are ultimately about — growing up and figuring out your place in the world, separate from the family unit or your school life or even your friends. 

Elle’s storyline certainly has a sister in the To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before series, and the third movie in particular. Like Elle, To All The Boys’ Lara Jean is trying to decide where to go to college and is heavily influenced by her relationship with boyfriend Peter Kavinsky, and not wanting to lose him. Also like Elle, she chooses college for herself in the end. 

I think it’s a really common problem a lot of teens face, and I’m glad to see this kind of positive representation of girls choosing themselves in current movies.

We may never escape horniness, but if even Elle can do it, there’s still hope.

Horniness and hope — what more could you ask for from a teen movie?

Jenna Guillaume is a journalist and the author of young adult rom-coms What I Like About Me and You Were Made for Me, as well as the novella The Deep End. Find her fangirling on Twitter @JennaGuillaume
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