Wildly unrealistic, utterly charming, endlessly watchable, crackling chemistry between its leads; these are the hallmarks of a great romantic comedy. It’s hard enough to reflect these traits for adults; for rom-coms aimed at teenagers, it’s even more difficult. This particular genre substrate not only has to check those boxes, the films also have to portray the intricate social constructs and sexual anxiety of high school life. Hollywood’s distaste for the genre in recent years has robbed Generation Z of their own great teen rom-com, one they can immortalize as was done with Grease, Sixteen Candles and others were before them.
To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before aims to fill that void. Based on the best-selling young adult novel of the same name, the film is about Lara Jean Covey (Lana Condor), a 16 year-old Korean-American girl who finds herself at a crossroads when her older sister Margot leaves for college. Her sister’s boyfriend Josh, who also happens to be her longtime crush, is now single and available, but her introverted nature and familial duty keeps her from pursuing him. Her only outlet for these unrequited feelings is letter-writing: Lara Jean has written love letters to all of her crushes, to work through her feelings without directly facing them. That is until the letters are sent to their intended recipients and hell breaks loose. Lara Jean’s solution to keeping Josh at arms length is to enter a fake relationship with another letter recipient, lacrosse jock Peter Kavinsky (Noah Centineo), who is also trying to make his ex-girlfriend jealous.
It’s pretty obvious where this story will ultimately end up; another, less heralded hallmark of the romantic comedy is its predictability. To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before understands that its story is fairly straightforward, and director Susan Johnson and writer Sofia Alvarez smartly resist trying to bust the genre’s conventions. For starters, there isn’t enough time: the film clocks in at a lean 90 minutes. That time is better spent hitting all the expected beats, adding a few along the way, and developing the characters whose shoulders the whole thing ultimately rest on. As deftly as they manage, there is a yearning for at least an additional 15 minutes (I would’ve preferred a full limited series), just so we had more with these thoroughly likable characters. Lara Jean is just lovely: cautious and introverted but brimming with wit and strength. Peter Kavinsky is already the Internet’s new boyfriend, and as the jock who decidedly isn’t a jerk who wears his heart on his sleeve, it’s deserved. Their relationship is built through genuine conversation, connection, trust and, most relevant in these times, respect. They share the kind of swoonworthy moments that will surely ruin real relationships for scores of teenagers. Their fights are heartrending, but never cruel or disrespectful. If To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before subverts anything about teen rom-coms, it’s the expectation that high school romances must be harmfully messy and soul-crushing to matter. Lara Jean and Peter’s relationship, even at it’s most challenging, is still a net positive; the added multi-racial dimension (which is given fair weight but doesn’t overwhelm) makes it practically radical. Johnson clearly knows that, quite literally framing them in the center of most shots they share together.
Of course, a great romantic comedy is nothing without chemistry, and To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before’s leads have oodles of it. Lana Condor and Noah Centineo both deliver the kind of performances that turn young actors into true stars. As guarded as Lara Jean is, Condor communicates quiet but sharp confidence and humor through her very expressive face, particularly her eyes. As the object of everyone’s affection, Centineo may actually have the harder job here, and he exceeds expectations, showing great instinct in igniting sparks with his partner. Together, they have a natural, comfortable rapport that can quickly snap tight with sexual tension through just a shared stare. Moments that might appear awkward with performers of varying skill actually sizzle (or bubble, considering a certain hot tub scene that will surely become iconic) with these two. The supporting cast of characters is just as strong: Sex and the City’s John Corbett is great as the well-meaning but totally lame dad, and Anna Cathcart nearly runs away with her scenes as the mischievous, no-nonsense younger sister Kitty.
Netflix has a very dubious history with original films, but To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before is a rousing success. Like the rom-com classics, the film relies on a good story driven by a truly great pairing that makes us believe that the leaking of secret love letters doesn’t have to be a complete disaster. It just works, without fancy bells or whistles, or common era cynicism, or deep meditation on the state of romance in the digital age. Simple, yet deeply felt, this is the kind of film that Hollywood could use some more of, and audiences are yearning for.
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