Lara Jean (Lana Condor) is a hopeless romantic. To All the Boys I’ve Love Before opens with her teenage daydream: she frolics in a field with her secret crush, Josh (Israel Broussard), who happens to be dating her older sister Margot (Janel Parrish). She writes down such dreams in love letters to her crushes, saving them instead of sending them, holding onto them as reminders of past longings. When Margot moves to Scotland (!) for university and subsequently breaks up with Josh, it triggers a chain of events which ultimately prompts wily younger sister, Kitty (Anna Cathcart), to mail the secret letters to Lara Jean’s former crushes. This includes not only Josh, but Peter (Noah Centineo), her middle school crush and current beau of her former best friend, Gen (Emilija Baranac). When Peter confronts Lara Jean about the letter, they decide to hatch a plan to keep up a fake romance, partly for Peter to woo back Gen via jealousy, partly for…well, it’s a teen romantic comedy. Logic isn’t really necessary here.
This may sound like an overwhelming amount of characters and plot twists, but director Susan Johnson’s adaptation of Jenny Han’s novel keeps track of all them, giving each character not only adequate attention but plenty of heart. With a plethora of such interesting characters involved in romantic triangles (or quadrangles?) and its emphasis on familial love between sisters, one might consider To All the Boys a Jane Austen-esque romance for 21st century America. Lana Condor and Noah Centineo give excellent performances in the lead roles, with Condor as a beautiful blend of humility and confidence, and Centineo–a Mark Ruffalo clone if ever there was one–comes across authentically as a caring and capable guy. Like The Edge of Seventeen before it, To All the Boys is on the ever-expanding list of “Teen Films Set in Portland But Filmed in Vancouver Where a Girl in Her Junior Year Deals With an Unexpected Romance Affecting Her Relationship With a Sibling While She Also Grieves Over the Loss of a Parent” (in this case, Lara Jean’s mother; John Corbett plays the goofy-yet-understanding father role quite well here.)
A perfect blend of John Hughes teen angst with Disney film teen cheesiness, To All the Boys contains familiar coming-of-age tropes mixed with fresh narrative ideas, especially in its emphasis on sisterly love and how it addresses sexuality and race. For the latter, To All the Boys is remarkably frank and honest without ever castigating or pigeonholing its characters. For instance, Lara Jean makes Peter watch Sixteen Candles with her, prompting him to ask if the Long Duk Dong character is “kinda racist.” “Not kinda, extremely racist,” Lara Jean replies, totally recognizing the racism as part of the film while still enjoying the movie as a classic teen romance–she’s Asian and she likes John Hughes movies too. In this, To All the Boys nods to the past–both the good and the bad–while acknowledging that it, as a film, is doing something quite different with race and romance. Lara Jean is obviously of Asian descent, and she does experience racist moments. But this isn’t a film about race, per se. Asianness simply is; it’s what makes Lara Jean and her sisters who they are, honoring racial heritage without either idolizing it nor ignoring it.
Regarding sexuality, Lara Jean casually brings up her virginity in conversations without it either being a source of shame nor an obstacle to overcome–she just hasn’t had sex yet, and she will whenever she feels she’s ready. One also gets the impression that Peter isn’t pressuring her; if anything, she’s the one who initiates and drives the physical aspect of their romance. She isn’t just sitting around moping that she doesn’t have a boyfriend (okay, admittedly she actually is doing this in the opening scenes); she has meaning and purpose beyond just having crushes. In a genre where losing one’s virginity is often portrayed as the ultimate accomplishment in life, it’s refreshing to see characters who are open and aware about their sexual desires without turning them into obsessions or their sole character traits. Adolescents are sexual beings, but that’s not all they are, and To All the Boys cares about that reality. Such a delightful, sincere coming-of-age film that takes the life stage of adolescence seriously (as well as the large cultural issues such as race and sex) is like its own dream come true.
IMDB Listing: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt3846674/