Netflix's latest dalliance in the teen rom-com genre is a real charmer, a sunny, bittersweet confection with plenty of welcome twists to high school romance.
I still remember the first boy on whom I had a real, fill my diary crush. Mike O’Brien, seventh grade. Tall, lanky, with blonde hair and a spray of freckles across his nose and cheeks, he was a popular boy, co-captain of the soccer team, but he was nice to me in a distant sort of way, enough that I thought there was a Sixteen Candles-esque possibility that he thought about me every now and then. He was, for a time, the most beautiful boy I had ever seen, with a smile that made me think of puppies and fresh baked cookies. Then, I found out that his buddies nicknamed him “Baby Oil,” and I made the mistake of asking one of them about it.
I won’t tell you why he was nicknamed “Baby Oil,” but, suffice to say, it was the most appalling thing 13-year-old me could have imagined, and the fire that burned for Mike in my heart couldn’t have been dashed out any faster if someone had thrown a bucket of water on me. Never again would he be mentioned in my diary—in fact, I declared that I was done with boys for the time being, because the idea of giving someone my heart, only to be let down, was simply terrifying. And then, a week later, I declared my love for Eric Meyers, Mike’s best friend. That flame burned bright for almost all of eighth grade, only to be replaced by Scott Strobel freshman year. Then it was Dan Williams. Then it was Robert Thiel. All of them took up substantial real estate in my journals, and I spoke to them a grand total of perhaps thirty words in the several years we went to school together. I never once entertained the thought of actually approaching any of them with my feelings, preferring the safety of expressing my ardor in the most flowery of prose, where no one could see it.
So too does Lara Jean Covey, the heroine of the new Netflix original film To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, a charming teen rom-com that occasionally gets a little more convoluted than it needs to, but never loses its sweet, gentle heart. Based on Jenny Han’s bestselling YA novel of the same name, it immediately boasts several aspects that set it apart in the genre, including an Asian-American protagonist, loving, involved parents, and a refreshing lack of focus on class and status. The heroine doesn’t need to overcome anything but her own fears and insecurity to get the love she wants.
“I write a letter when a crush gets so intense I don’t know what else to do…re-reading them reminds me of how powerful my emotions can be,” Lara Jean (the delightful Lana Condor of X-Men: Apocalypse) explains in voiceover, as she fills a box with passionate missives to various boys she’s adored from afar since fifth grade, never intending them to be sent. One of these boys is Josh (Israel Broussard, Happy Death Day), her childhood friend/next door neighbor turned older sister’s boyfriend, but things become complicated when Lara Jean’s sister breaks up with Josh the night before leaving for college in Scotland. Not knowing what to do about her feelings for Josh now that he’s single, she also fears losing him as part of her family.
Josh quickly becomes the least of her problems, however, after Lara Jean’s pushy younger sister, concerned at her lack of a social life, sends out the letters Lara Jean wrote to their recipients. Josh receives his, and so does Peter (Noah Centineo), a high school lacrosse player Lara Jean once kissed at a seventh grade party, and who now dates her former friend turned nemesis, Genevieve (Emilija Baranac). Though at first blush Peter seems like a typical jock douchebag, he’s more bemused than annoyed by Lara Jean’s letter, and lets her down easy, declaring his love for Genevieve.
Because such is usually the way of high school romances, Peter and Genevieve break up, and Peter returns to Lara Jean with a proposition: pretend that they’re dating, so that he can make Genevieve jealous, and Lara Jean can avoid any uncomfortable conversations with Josh. She reluctantly agrees, and they make a contract, where Lara Jean must attend parties with Peter, and Peter must be satisfied with just holding hands, because, as Lara Jean explains, she wants her first real kiss to have real feelings in it.
You can probably guess what this contract will eventually lead to, but you know what? Relax and enjoy this harmless, sweet little bit of wish fulfillment fluff courtesy of screenwriter Sofia Alvarez and director Susan Johnson (Carrie Bilby). Sure, “someone pretends to be someone else’s romantic partner” is the premise that drives many a romantic comedy, but here it manages to do so without many of the stereotypical plot twists. Lara Jean doesn’t abandon her old friends after getting a taste of popularity (in fact, her relationship with her quirky best friend Christine (Madeleine Arthur) is one of the high points of the movie), Peter is a stand-up guy all the way through to the end, and, most thankfully, the love triangle you’d expect to happen never occurs. The movie is less about how the boys perceive her, and more how Lara Jean, who lost her mother at a young age, learns to deal with her fear of getting too close to anyone, and accepts that allowing herself to be loved is one of the bravest things she can do.
Excuse me, I have something in my eye.
If To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before stumbles in any way, it’s that Lara Jean is simply too cute and personable to buy as unpopular, but that’s an issue with the genre overall, as opposed to the movie itself. Also debuting on Netflix this month is the alleged comedy Insatiable, with a teen protagonist who plots to murder her classmates, and makes faux edgy jokes about “having a chance” with a pedophile. To compare it with To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, where its teen protagonist watches Golden Girls marathons with her little sister, is like comparing a box of scorpions to a ball of cotton candy. The scorpions are going to get more attention, but, with real life being as scary as it is, maybe we could use some sweetness instead.
To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before gazes lovingly at Netflix from afar on August 17th.