by Max Tassell | September 21, 2020
In the opening moments of Netflix hit To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before (2018), Lara Jean’s (Lana Condor) older sister Margot (Janel Parrish) has a tragicomic moment while dumping her boyfriend. Unfortunately, the poor sap had already bought a plane ticket to Scotland, so that he could visit her while she’s at college. While Lara Jean floats into a reverie about Josh (Israel Broussard), little is made of the horrifying expense of the plane ticket, and more of the personal cost of the event. It is not ignored, just not important. Not every film has to be a depressing reminder of one’s difficult circumstances — romantic comedies often follow their own formulas and cliches to provide an escape for audiences. However, many romantic comedies perpetually exist in a higher class, especially for three 2018 films aimed at young adults and teens: TATBILB, Love, Simon and The Kissing Booth. The purpose of this seems to be that in order to be concerned with lightness, with the quaint and pretty love stories between young people, the world they occupy can’t be hampered by the darkness and struggle of poverty.
Not even poverty, in fact, but just the mundane anxieties one must face if you aren’t in their position: balancing a job with high school, not having your pick of the litter when it comes to college, not being able to travel, not being able to take your high school girlfriend to a nice restaurant. This critique is not to say that the bourgeois nature of these films destroys their quality or renders them insulting, but without characters who have these “real life” experiences, the films risk alienating their audience.
In 2018, I took a summer course on popular literature. What I expected to be a brief academic slog crammed into my holiday turned into something I looked forward to. My biggest takeaway from that class was that no matter how expensive, mainstream, or supposedly cheesy a work is, it still has to be critiqued and interrogated like any other, especially those aimed at young people. Within this new frame of mind, the first film which made me question the relationship between class and romantic comedies, specifically, was Love, Simon. As a big-budget studio film, it is a plush, sensitive rom-com with a progressive angle and diverse cast, adapted from a Young Adult novel. The film was widely celebrated, but also generated debate as to the kinds of representation LGBTQ+ people are given — in particular, what is positive representation, and what is cynical. Sure, we’re glad to see an LGBT+ love story on screen, but why is it only pretty, skinny white boys? To its credit, the film does not posit itself as the ultimate victory over homophobia and adversity — the conflict of the story is believably centred around the relationships of mostly understanding and empathic teenagers. But at the same time, as I watched it, it occurred to me that on top of that, Simon (Nick Robinson) is clearly, exceedingly wealthy. In particular, I found myself unable to look past Simon’s colonial mansion and its impeccable interior. According to Architectural Digest, “A stately home in the upscale neighbourhood of Peachtree Battle was used for both the exterior and interior scenes at the Spier home.” The median price for a house there in 2018 was roughly 1.3 million.
The backdrop of a stately home persists also in To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before, in which Lara Jean’s home is brightly expensive and clean, and Peter Kavinsky’s car is a brand new Jeep Wrangler, which would run you about $35k (AUD). In no other scene, however, does the wealth displayed on screen stick out more than at their schoolmate Greg’s party. The sequence is set in a house with an unreal interior; a beautiful open plan living room of dazzling marble peers into a rich blue pool adorned with palms. Lara Jean plonks herself down on a sumptuous leather couch with the centrepiece of the room behind her – a roughly 6” tall aquarium fitted with a chunk of coral pulled straight from the depths of the ocean. It’s distracting to think of this as a high school party taking place in a house befitting a mob movie. The party sits in a realm of unreality as a result, in which all of these “teenagers”, people who are supposedly in the most awkward and physically gross stage of their lives, are dressed and made up impeccably, lounging luxuriously in their absurd surroundings. But what about escapism? It’s nice to live in a world for a while where the people are pretty and life doesn’t get in the way. As adults, it’s satisfying to retroactively filter our adolescent experience through this comforting lens. Teenagers, on the other hand, can enjoy the fantasy of it all, that their awkward parties and hookups matter in the long run, and can look beautiful. This being said, the hegemony of these films shouldn’t go unquestioned. People who don’t live in these mansions and drive these cars have love stories too. Not only that, but not applying this kind of criticism leaves you with uglier films like The Kissing Booth (2018).
If To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before is the soft, escapist example of this wealthy trend, then The Kissing Booth is the flip side. Netflix’s critical bomb and commercial success is a movie which bludgeons you with its comfortable ignorance. A teenage boy’s dream car that his parents buy him is an aggressively luxe purchase of a ’65 Ford Mustang. The Big Time Rush-esque love interest (Jacob Elordi) gets it on with Elle (Joey King) in a dizzying mansion that overlooks the Hollywood hills. They gleefully bum around on his nice bike, and big car, and swan into their private school. Perhaps the most obvious moment is when our two lovebirds wander up to the Hollywood sign and have sex. At the risk of sounding like the buzzkill of a romantic moment, there is something fishy about these two young rich white people getting away with a crime that would surely come with great consequence for those less rich and white.
The conspicuous consumption on display in The Kissing Booth serves no function. It does not create a unique aesthetic, critique its own class character, or even portray some kind of interesting part of society we want to see more of. Worst of all, it trundles along blissfully unaware of how fabulously wealthy its characters are. Taking these examples into account, it seems that their social strata was a deliberate choice, but to what end? Why, like the beautiful twenty-something actors that are often cast in teen films, is everything so uncomfortably perfect?
Class does come up in the follow up, The Kissing Booth 2 (2020), as Elle must choose between two historic universities, UC Berkeley and Harvard. They rank #6 and #1 on the CWUR World University Rankings, respectively. The prospect of going to any college for an American student represents a daunting financial mountain to be climbed, and certainly not one you would want to make on the basis of your high school boyfriend. Elle’s father reveals to her that due to a lifetime of savings, they can afford Berkeley, however Harvard is just a little too dear. The solution? A dance competition with a cash prize, of course. Money is a problem in this instance, but only superficially. Compare this to a film like Lady Bird (2017), which hit us so hard, among other things, because the romance and pain is so beautifully entwined with the monetary struggles of the family. What about Pretty In Pink (1986), which engages with how class can affect teen romance, and how it can be overcome? In the same year, Netflix themselves were able to put out Dumplin’ (2018), in which the characters work in low-wage jobs, and not every location is dazzling, though it’s not exactly a rom-com.
This trend of excessive wealth in teen rom-coms has existed for a while already. Take Clueless (1995)as an example. Yet, what differentiates The Kissing Booth from a film like Clueless is that the latter is able to examine itself. Cher’s inordinate wealth is the in-joke of the film, the viewer understands how ridiculous her position is. And yet, we still relate to her. By choosing to address her riches and reinforce her redeeming qualities, we can be brought closer to her, rather than alienated. Love, Simon and To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before have likeable protagonists too, except the latter are almost unwilling to admit to their wealth. In the opening scene of Love Simon, Simon goes so far as to say “I am just like you”. But how many of us really are? If you present these affluent stories without comment, without any insight or criticism, what’s the point? It seems to be so these characters don’t have anything else to worry about but their quaint little romances. We should all be so lucky. It’s inevitable that this mechanistic industry of YA rom-coms will continue to churn out charmers and manufacture new heartthrobs a la Noah Centineo, so it’s important that we demand diversity in the class we see on screen. There are plenty of teenagers and young adults who deserve to have their homes and neighbourhoods be the setting of a romance, too.