Netflix has had some great hits in recent years, even recent months. They're the likes of "One Day at a Time," "American Vandal," "A Series of Unfortunate Events," "Lost in Space," "House of Cards," the list goes on. A few recent Netflix originals have caught my eye though: teen romcoms. Three, in particular, stood out to me the most. "To All the Boys I've Loved Before," "Sierra Burgess Is A Loser" and "The Kissing Booth." *GASP* Yes, I know, get over the shock now so I can explain.
First off, all these movies are based on prior literary works, and book-to-movie adaptations have gained the reputation of being bad because they tend to leave out large parts of the story. In the case of "The Kissing Booth," it was based off a popular Wattpad story, whereas Sierra Burgess is a modern retelling of the story Cyrano de Bergerac. "To All the Boys I've Loved Before" is based on the New York Times bestselling novel by Jenny Han. In all three cases, I found something disturbing about the plot or the characters themselves, whether that's attributed to the film or the story itself is for you to decide. There's going to be spoilers here, so you've been warned.
In order of worst to best movie, I'll begin with "The Kissing Booth." Overall, it's probably one of the most sexist and socially back-tracking movies I've seen recently. From slut-shaming to underrepresented and wrongly represented people of color characters to relationship abuse, it missed the mark in so many ways.
First, let's talk about the Rules. Why does a friendship need so many rules in the first place? Even if Elle and Lee have been friends since childhood, that's the first sign that maybe they should change their restrictive behaviors. An inference from the very beginning, I assumed Elle and Lee would end up together but that didn't even happen.
The movie begins in what was supposed to be a comical series of events (or was it?), Elle rips her school provided uniform pants and is forced to wear a skirt that's too small. When she arrives at school she's catcalled by several boys and gasps are heard all around by classmates. After one of the boys takes it too far and gropes her, Noah (Lee's older brother) decides to step in and beat the guy up.
And later she agrees to go on a date with the boy that groped her? Like, what? And while Elle and Noah are waiting to talk to the Principle, he says, "Wearing a skirt like that is asking for it," and regardless if he admits he ran the "sexist conversation" over in his head again, it still shows how much of a trophy girlfriend she'll eventually become.
The cringy moments where she's stripping on top of the pool table and Noah has her sleep in his bed just adds to the discomfort of the movie as a whole. It's clear Noah has no respect for Elle or any of the other girls he regularly makes out with or hooks up with (like in the pavilion he later takes Elle). His possessive, aggressive, and misogynistic behavior becomes the forefront of their relationship.
Even at the close of the movie, Elle is still not her own person, claiming "I knew there was a part of me that was always going to belong to Noah Flynn." Even in the moments, Elle did stand up for herself, the movie greatly overshadowed them and instead went for the scandal. You could watch the four-minute voice-over at the start of the program and can say you've already seen the movie.
Next up, "Sierra Burgess Is A Loser." I had less of a sexism problem with this movie than I did a problem with consent and body shaming (and possibly queerbaiting?). At the start of the movie, Sierra Burgess is shown to be a normal teenage girl. She's not supposed to be conventionally beautiful, she's plus size, she's smart and proactive, and she participates in the school band. Sierra is painted as the perfect underdog.
But as the movie progresses and she gets deeper and deeper into this horrific situation of catfishing a boy she likes; her real character is shown. When quarterback Jamey gets given Sierra's number by Veronica, thinking he's talking to the latter, Sierra keeps texting Jamey under the guise of Veronica herself. Sierra doesn't even think for a second to say Jamey had gotten the wrong number, and she, her friend and Veronica all see this as a fun game, not one playing with someone's feelings and emotions.
I did love the relationship that Sierra and Veronica developed though, outside of Jamey. At many points, I waited for the "betrayal" that I expected to happen, but it never truly came except for the ending that featured the misunderstanding. I think that Sierra's character devolved into self-hatred which is what this whole situation did to her, and what she did to herself.
By not revealing her true identity to Jamey she's consistently telling herself that she's not good enough for him, that she's not pretty enough for him. That toxic way of thinking spreads to her best friend, her parents, Veronica, and Jamey, destroying her relationships one by one.
What really irked me the most was the kiss scene. Veronica puts her hand over Jamey's eyes, lets Sierra kiss him unknowingly, then walk away with music playing in the background, both my roommate and I were inching away from the screen audibly groaning. That kiss was not consensual.
Even if he is kissing the girl he's been texting, Sierra and Veronica have no right to choose who he thinks he's kissing. It's not hypersensitive to think this or feel uncomfortable when watching that scene in the movie because a lot of people agree. Undercover, Sierra is incredibly manipulative and sort of terrible, she makes selfish decisions to further her own agenda, and overall, she's maybe just a bad person.
"To All the Boys I've Loved Before" ranks first on my list of worst teen romcoms because it was the least problematic but still cringe-worthy and a bit annoying. Lara Jean wrote letters to all the boys she's ever had a real crush on. Lara Jean's sister, hating Lara Jean's nonexistent love life, decides to send out the letters to their respective receivers, one being the boyfriend of Lara Jean's ex-best friend, Peter, and another her older sister's ex-boyfriend and childhood crush, Josh. And ah the fake dating trope, the cake of all romance tropes. But the relationship they developed in the movie wasn't entirely a healthy one.
To start off, Lara Jean shows off one of the most light-hearted displays of sexual assault by pushing Peter on the track and forcibly kissing him in order to deter Josh from talking to her and asking about the letter he received. Well, darn. And when they do start fake dating, Peter is basically using Lara Jean to make his ex-girlfriend jealous.
Peter sleeping in the same room with his ex-girlfriend (Lara Jean's ex-best friend) is still not okay, especially after he and Lara Jean are supposed to be dating at that point. Even Peter's seemingly heartfelt declaration of "Nothing happened in the hot tub," when a video of Peter and Lara Jean gets leaked feels fake. Overall, "To All the Boys I've Loved Before" just felt very fake and it reinforced the idea that a girl needs a boy to be happy. It was a sad attempt at an adaptation.
Representation in all these movies was a problem for me personally. Netflix has done things like "Alex Strangelove" but that kind of movie was exclusively dealing with LGBT+ characters. All of them pushed the heteronormative notions that you can't be happy without a partner or in these cases, a boyfriend.
I think that one of the only things that could have saved "Sierra Burgess Is A Loser" would have been if Veronica and Sierra got together at the end instead of Sierra and Jamey. There was one openly gay character in "To All the Boys I've Loved Before," but that was it, and he was still closeted.
The lack of minority groups all around, people of color, different sizes treated as normal, people with disabilities handled in good ways (in reference to Noah Flynn's aggression and mentions of counseling) is problematic. I did like that Jamey's little brother was Deaf representative and that the movie didn't treat it as a main focal point but showed how it's like to live with a Deaf sibling in everyday life. Lara Jean's family in "To All the Boys I've Loved Before," I've been told by my roommate, had a greater focus on their Korean heritage in the books versus the movie, which was mainly reliant on the "love" story to push it forward.
In conclusion, these movies are all different levels of wrong, and in most, the cute relationship gets grossly up played when the darker elements are lurking just behind the curtain. What will Netflix do next?