“My letters are my most secret possessions.”
To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before didn’t give me a very good first impression. The opening is rather stilted, feeling less like a John Hughes classic and more akin to a Disney Channel TV movie, and it does very little to develop a unique spin on a story we’ve seen countless times before. But then the entire film matures and evolves into something else. Growing up can do that to you; one second you’re an innocent, and before you know it you’re a young adult. To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before overcomes its early missteps and then some, joining the likes of The Edge of Seventeen as a film that’s heavily influenced by its predecessors but so specifically made for our current generation of adolescents. It’s aware, smart, and a bit revolutionary in all of the minor tweaks it makes to the standard high school love story.
The big Sister Margot’s (Janel Parrish) off to college, and her departure spells social decline for Lara Jean (Lana Condor). Prior to her departure, Margot broke up with Josh (Israel Broussard), the literal boy next door and Lara Jean’s longtime crush. No longer is she an accepted third wheel, now pacing the cafeteria until she opts to eat in the library. Lara Jean, nicknamed LJ by few confidants, spends most of her time in a fantasy world of romantic literature. The film quite daringly even begins in this fashion as she imagines herself walking the fields in a novel called “The Forbidden Kiss.” And because LJ’s a romantic introvert, she writes love letters to all of her young love crushes, going so far as addressing them but never mailing them. Little Sister Kitty (Anna Cathcart) finds the envelopes. She stamps them and sends them. Lara Jean becomes full of dread. High School is hard enough as it is without all of the romantic drama.
To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before works as well as it does because there really is no clear-cut antagonist. There doesn’t need to be one; at this age, everything feels like it’s out to get us when it doesn’t align with how we think and feel. The closest thing we get is Gen (Emilija Baranac), a snaky girl who would’ve fit right in with “The Plastics” of Mean Girls. She stirs drama because LJ kissed the guy she liked as kids in a good old-fashioned game of spin the bottle, and now that same guy Peter Kavinsky (Noah Centineo), a lacrosse player and the hottest guy in school, as well as a recipient of a letter from LJ, becomes her “boyfriend.” Peter recently broke-up with Gen and wants to make her jealous. LJ wants an excuse to not speak with Josh, another guy with an unexplained letter. It’s a sham until they fall for each other.
We’ve seen this set-up before; blend and stir the Prom King dates outsider elements of She’s All That with “The Taming of the Shrew” trickery from 10 Things I Hate About You and To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before is the natural byproduct. Not everything clicks though. The widowed Dad (John Corbett), while affectionate, never becomes more than a punchline because he’s a gynecologist. The best friend feels more obligatory to the genre than she does to Lara Jean. Josh the neighbor has no real character arc. And while I hate critiquing kids, the youngest sibling can’t act and her scenes become hard to watch. That’s what doesn’t work with the film, which I feel should be pointed out, because everything else it does is just so wonderful. Lara Jean is an Asian-American and the movie never makes a big deal out of it. Why? Because that doesn’t define her. She represents a positive shift towards representation without having to wear a name tag that says, “Hi, I’m Asian.” But best of all, the film gives us a popular, athletic guy who’s nice and kind and falls for a girl because she’s just as beautiful on the inside as she is on the outside. We want them to be together because we come to believe that they need to be together. It’s convincing stuff.
Based on Jenny Han’s novel, adapted by screenwriter Sofia Alvarez, and directed by Susan Johnson, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before tells the kind of high school story I’ve been waiting for from a wide-ranging female perspective. It confronts and steals from the genre’s best without condemning them. LJ tells Peter to put his hand in her back pocket because that’s how Jake Ryan walked with Samantha Baker in Sixteen Candles. Then they watch the movie and when Peter sees the Long Duk Dong character he asks, “Isn’t this kind of racist?” These are smart, perceptive young adults, just trying to make sense of a world that changes every two weeks. They kiss, they argue, they talk. One incredible shot shows them fighting, separated by the floor to ceiling steel bar between the double doors of a school hall. And as the film begins in an imaginary field, it rightfully ends in a real one, showing us that imagination can manifest itself in reality when we puts ourselves out into the world. To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before is a love letter to the films that came before it and to all of the conversations we dream up inside our heads, and it’s courageous enough, as well as sufficiently polite enough, to raise its hand before it speaks its truths. Not only do we hear them loud and clear, we feel them like a shot through the heart.
“You’ve gotta tell people how you feel when you feel it.”
Rating: 4 out of 5