To All the Boys I've Loved Before
A charming throwback to the sort of snappy, high concept teen movies that peppered the 80s and 90s, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before might not be the best young adult film of the year, but it’s solidly constructed and unique in its own special ways. This adaptation of Jenny Han’s bestselling novel of the same name doesn’t boast the same angsty impact as Bo Burnham’s hyper-realistic and purposefully awkward Eighth Grade achieved earlier in the summer, but director Susan Johnson (Carrie Pilby) and first time feature screenwriter Sofia Alvarez have achieved a nice balance between harsh teenage realities and lighthearted wish fulfillment; one that slots nicely into the latest renaissance in the teen flick genre. It’s predictable and fluffy, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t highly entertaining, well performed, or thoughtfully realized.
Lana Condor stars as Lara Jean Covey, a Korean-American high school junior from small town Oregon. She’s the middle child of three sisters being raised by a widowed, white, gynecologist father (John Corbett), and her responsibilities at home are about to increase once her older sister, Margot (Janel Parrish) leaves for her first year of university in Scotland. The shy and reserved Lara Jean loves bodice ripping romance novels, but never knows how to approach boys, something compounded by her enormous crush on Josh (Israel Broussard), the literal boy next door and Margot’s recently dumped beau. Instead of telling the boys she crushes on that she likes them, she writes them love letters that she keeps in a hatbox in her closet, never intending to send them. But there wouldn’t be a much of a story if the letters didn’t get sent, and the five love notes not-so-mysteriously make their way to their intended recipients, including Josh. One of the people to receive a letter is Peter (Noah Centineo), a soft-hearted jock who just got dumped by the school’s resident mean girl and Lara Jean’s biggest antagonist (Amilija Baranac). Instead of awkwardness, Peter sees an opportunity, as Lara Jean reluctantly agrees to be his fake girlfriend to make his ex think that she made a mistake by dumping him. In exchange, the fake relationship will hopefully cause the snafu stemming from Josh’s letter to blow over. But while Lara Jean still thinks she’s a perfect fit for Josh, she might turn out to have more romantic chemistry with Peter than she initially suspected.
To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before has a plot that wouldn’t be out of place in a John Hughes work, which is probably why the film references the lord and master of teen movies with such great frequency. Oddball romantic couplings falling for each other against all odds has been a genre specialty for ages now, and To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before leans into its influences (most notably Sixteen Candles, TV’s The Golden Girls, Better Off Dead, and Say Anything) with gleeful affection instead of post-modern irony. The teens in Johnson’s film still look and sound like normal human beings, even if the constant referencing of the story’s forbearers isn’t anything particularly original. It’s a film that’s firmly considering its value as a piece of engaging entertainment first, and when the results are this good, it’s hard to argue with such a crowd pleasing focus. It’s mostly basic and broad, but it’s made with exceptional attention to detail and a genuine love for the material and it’s likable characters.
In another comparison to other recently released films, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before doesn’t place cultural identity, class, and race at the top of its list of talking points in the same way that Crazy Rich Asians does, but making a film of this nature built around predominantly non-white actors freshens up the material. Most stories pitched at this level and built around suburbanized North American families tend to forget that “everyday average teenagers” come in all races. While the Korean side of Lara Jean’s family is brought up scarcely, it’s a proud part of the film’s core group of sisters. It doesn’t add much, but it’s another example of how a story can use specific cultural identities to help young people see actors who look like them acting out relatable stories on screen. It doesn’t have the same door busting impact that other more revolutionary films have had this year, but it’s a nice and engaging addition to a year where equitable representation on screen continues to be front and centre in the conversation.
Highfalutin theorizing and cultural critiquing aside, however, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before succeeds mostly because it’s hilarious more often than not. The film’s humour is anchored primarily in the strength of Condor’s leading performance. Playing Lara Jean at all times like she has a stomach full of butterflies and a head full of dreams, Condor will remind viewers of all ages how agonizing crushes can be during the most awkward period of one’s life. She’s the kind of gifted performer who can elicit great emotional reactions in viewers without saying a word of dialogue. A late film sit down with Corbett’s loving and dorky father and an awkward Skype session with Parrish’s older sister are memorable moments where a leading performer can get deliver a great performance simply through the art of listening to her co-stars and reacting accordingly. Her chemistry alongside Centineo (who’s also quite good) is strong and assured enough to make even the most cynical of viewers believe in their high concept romance. It’s commanding work that will hopefully lead to many more starring roles for Condor in the future.
Not every element of To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before fits into Johnson’s film perfectly. Anna Cathcart’s well performed catty younger sister is an effective cog in the plot’s machinery, but the character seems to have been copied from a far more precocious Nickelodeon sitcom than an older skewing teen flick. Nothing comes of most of Lara Jean’s letter writing, and her love for the written word as a means of communicating her inner desires isn’t followed through on. The roles of Lara Jean’s best friends (Madeleine Arthur as a blunt speaking party girl and Torontonian Andrew Bachelor as a nerdy, gay, black kid) have some great moments, but are largely forgotten about. Some of the film’s dangling threads are wrapped up far too neatly in the film’s truncated final act, but the points that matter most are followed through on nicely. Most movies in this genre suffer from similar problems, probably because the life of a teenager can feel chaotic and uncertain even at the best of times. In that respect, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before rightfully assumes its spot in teen movie history. It’s a film that a lot of teens (and adults) are going to enjoy immensely.
To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before will be available for streaming on Netflix starting Friday, August 17, 2018.
Check out the trailer or To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before: