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They had just finished up a round of Skee-Ball when they were spotted by a couple of teenage girls meekly clutching iPhones.

“We love The Kissing Booth,” one of the young women exclaimed. “Can we take a selfie with you?”

The three stars of the Netflix film — Joey King, 18, Jacob Elordi, 21, and Joel Courtney, 22 — obliged of course. Since the film’s release in May, they said, they’ve been approached like this hundreds of times.

“Every day, at least a couple of times a day,” Elordi said. “Some people are strange, but most of the young kids are awesome. The other night I was eating by myself at a diner and a group of college friends asked me if I wanted to sit with them, so I did.”

A year ago, this would have never happened to him — certainly not in America, anyway. Not long ago, he was an aspiring actor living in Brisbane, Australia, whose biggest role to date was playing an uncredited marine in the fifth Pirates of the Caribbean movie. Before The Kissing Booth hit Netflix this spring, he had 15,000 followers on Instagram. Now, he has 4.3 million.

His costars, meanwhile, grew up as kid actors in Hollywood. Courtney was 14 when he scored his first big role in J.J. Abrams’ Super 8, and King just 10 when she starred opposite Selena Gomez as the iconic Beverly Cleary character Ramona Quimby in Ramona and Beezus.

But despite years of building up solid resumes — King has appeared in The Conjuring, The Dark Knight Rises and the TV series Fargo — none of their projects have given them the instant recognition of The Kissing Booth. Earlier this month, Ted Sarandos, Netflix’s chief content officer, called the film “one of the most-watched movies in the country, and maybe in the world.”

Which, frankly, no one expected.

The film is based on a story written by a 15-year-old, and it first appeared on Wattpad, an online self-publishing platform. It follows an upbeat teenager named Elle (King) whose high school existence is going swimmingly until she falls for her best friend’s hunky older brother (Courtney plays the BFF, Elordi the b.f.). It was directed by Vince Marcello, a Disney Channel filmmaker responsible for Teen Beach Movie and its subsequent sequel, Teen Beach 2.

In other words, The Kissing Booth is cute enough, but the majority of critics have declared it an objectively bad movie: It has a 14 per cent rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

But as Vulture put it, the romantic comedy is “bad in a comforting way. Most of the plot points and supporting characters are blatant rip-offs of earlier teen films, which gives the film a similar quality to those pop songs that build their hooks by sampling previous hits.”

It’s also an intriguing new piece in the ongoing puzzle known as Netflix original movies. While the streaming giant has produced a slew of respected, award-nominated television fare — Orange Is the New Black, House of Cards, Making a Murderer — its film content has yet to make the same kind of broad impact.

Dee Rees’ Mudbound, which the company picked up at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival, earned Netflix its first Oscar nominations outside of documentary categories just this year.

Other titles — from Okja to War Machine to Sundance prize winner I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore — have flown lower on the cultural radar. Even a “success,” like Will Smith’s Bright — which Netflix says attracted a lot of eyeballs, though it never publicly released streaming figures — was dinged by scathing reviews.

But few, if any, of Netflix’s movies outside of its film library have been aimed at young people. Which is partially why the company decided to produce The Kissing Booth, financing the film’s two-month shoot in South Africa last year.

“We had 13 Reasons Why and Stranger Things on the series side, but it was a space we hadn’t explored much on the film side,” said Ian Bricke, Netflix’s director of independent film. “We thought this had a Disney Channel vibe, but felt slightly more grounded — it felt like an interesting, underserved spot between younger YA and edgier teen fare.”

“I really, really wanted to do it, but I also was afraid, of course, that it would get kind of lost in the crowd of all the Netflix content,” King explained.

The actress — whose Instagram following jumped from 600,000 to 4.7 million post-release — has been dating Elordi ever since The Kissing Booth wrapped. He moved into her home in Sherman Oaks for a year, during which they continuously posted a stream of mushy pictures kissing, sharing ice cream cones and wearing matching Halloween costumes.

“I guess I feel like it’s almost scary giving people what they want so much, because of how much people are obsessed with our relationship,” King explained, referring to her recent lack of couple-y posts. “I’m like, ‘Maybe I should keep some of that to myself.’ I go back and forth on that.”

The trio said they had an indication The Kissing Booth might become a thing shortly after the trailer debuted. Within the first week, it had racked up 18 million views globally; that number has since jumped to 46 million.

“A movie like this, I expected it to have a solid fan base but a really niche demographic,” said Courtney. “It’s been so much bigger than I could have ever hoped for. People love it so much and watch it on repeat. I can’t tell you how many comments I’ve seen on pictures saying ‘I’ve watched your movie seven times.’”

The film’s cast said it views The Kissing Booth as a throwback to the kind of teen movie the film business rarely makes anymore — “like if She’s the Man and Mean Girls had a little, bitty baby,” King said.

“It’s like they’re bringing back the old favourites, because there haven’t been any movies out in the last couple of years like Kissing Booth. It’s an old-school rom-com, and I love that,” she continued.

“It was very reminiscent of Pretty in Pink for me,” said Courtney.

The comparisons to John Hughes classics are intentional. Molly Ringwald actually has a small role in The Kissing Booth, and the movie’s nostalgic touches — including using the most iconic song from The Breakfast Club — are meant to help the appeal for those far outside the target demographic.

Bricke said Netflix would explore the possibility of a sequel for the film “if there was a good organic continuation of the characters,” and all three actors are open to it if “the script was banging,” said King.


Don’t miss it!

The Kissing Booth is streaming on Netflix