TV Review – To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before
Some people compared this movie to the hit film Crazy Rich Asians. It was released on August 17, the same week or in the immediate wake of Crazy Rich Asians and its global success. The comparisons come because both are based on novels by Asian authors or authors of Asian descent, as well as feature female Asian protagonists in a romantic scenario. This movie doesn’t have a predominantly Asian cast, but both films are sweet and have happy endings. Both satisfy appetites for something simple and lovey-dovey. Yet, just as Crazy Rich Asians fell in line with similar stories about poor women and wealthy, almost prince-like men, this movie also falls in line with stories about geeky or nerdy girls hooking up with jocks or athletes in high school. This movie then is not that far flung from She’s All That (1999) or films in that vein.
In fact, this movie outright references Sixteen Candles (1984), which is one of several teen, romantic comedies made by John Hughes. In many ways, this movie isn’t doing anything that Hughes’ films weren’t doing 20 or 30 years ago. If anything, this movie adheres to the Hughes’ formula, except instead of two white people as the leads, this movie has two minorities, an Asian girl as the protagonist and a Latino boy as the love interest. It makes this movie part of a wave of films in the Hughes’ formula but that instead put minorities in the lead positions. The last of which was Love, Simon, which put a gay male teen in the lead.
At the same time, director Susan Johnson also makes this movie a commentary or critique of Hughes’ movie, particularly the Asian stereotype in Sixteen Candles. It’s not much of a critique. It might simply be a slight rebuke of Hughes’ Asian stereotype and nothing more. The formula, not just by Hughes but most rom-coms, is the lie or the secret that becomes the premise until the lie or secret is exposed, causing the couple to split until the inevitable forgiveness and reconciliation. Hughes didn’t invent this formula. The formula came in the wake of Hughes, more so among adult rom-coms. The lie or secret as premise really built up after Hughes but has now become the cliché standard or trope. This movie doesn’t avoid that trope but leans into it, but its reasons for doing so are incredibly weak. Love, Simon leans into the trope somewhat, but at least its reason for doing so was stronger. Its reason was homophobia. Nothing in this movie is as strong a reason as that.
Lana Condor (X-Men: Apocalypse) stars as Lara Jean, a teenager about to enter her junior year of high school. She’s 16 years-old. She lives with her two older sisters and her single father. She’s seemingly biracial. Her father is white. Her mother is deceased but apparently she was Korean. She likes to read, but other than that, the only thing we know about her is that she claims to be in love with five guys, which is my main contention with this movie.
We do learn that Lara Jean is close with her older sister, Margot, played by Janel Parrish (Pretty Little Liars). Margot is two years older and she leaves to attend college in Scotland. Why Margot chose Scotland is unknown. What Margot plans to study or what her major will be is also unknown. We have no clue of her interests. We don’t know her goals, her strengths or weaknesses. The same is true for Lara Jean. It’s one thing if Margot isn’t fleshed out. She’s off-screen for the majority of the movie, but Lara Jean is in practically every scene, so having her be driven or not driven based solely on boys she loves or don’t love isn’t interesting.
Later, the movie suggests Lara Jean’s happiness is contingent on her having a boyfriend. In order for her to have fun or do fun things, she has to have a boy literally pull her along either to parties or trips. She’s more of a bookworm or a kind of homebody, but why that’s mocked as not fun is yet another stereotype. Reading is fun or watching TV can be fun. When it comes to her relationship with the Latino boy who becomes her love interest, she mostly has to engage in his activities. He does watch Sixteen Candles with her once but it becomes about him charming her younger sister than engaging in her TV show or something.
Noah Centineo (The Fosters) co-stars as Peter Kravinski. Kravinski is the aforementioned, Latino boy. Kravinski isn’t exactly a Latino name, but Peter might be biracial. His mom looks white. His father abandoned his family, so his father’s race is unknown and could be Latino or Italian like Centineo is in real-life, but when Peter was in the 7th grade with Lara Jean, he kissed her in a game of spin-the-bottle. However, Peter went on to date Lara Jean’s former best friend, Genevieve, but now he’s come around to wanting to date Lara Jean.
The inciting incident that brings Lara Jean and Peter together is due to Lara Jean’s sister, Kitty, played by Anna Cathcart (Odd Squad). Kitty discovers that Lara Jean has written five love-letters to five, different boys. One of those letters is addressed to Peter. Kitty decides to mail all five letters to all five guys. Peter has broken up with Genevieve, so if the letter had been his impetus for dating Lara Jean, that would have been fine or an impetus for Lara Jean to re-examine her feelings or reasons for writing the letters, that would have been fine too, but screenwriter Sofia Alvarez, adapting Jenny Han’s novel, complicates the plot needlessly and confusingly.
First of all, why Lara Jean is in love with each of the five guys is never explored. She simply lists the guys but doesn’t give much reason for her so-called love for them. She could just have exaggerated crushes, lustful desires from someone so chaste and there’s some indication that her love letters are fantasies but with real people attached, but making that distinction isn’t the actual lesson of the movie. She says it at one point, but the actual lesson seems to be more about her own confidence and self-esteem, and if she had just pursued these boys, she could have had good boyfriends with the exception of one.
The impetus for Lara Jean and Peter being together isn’t all that important though. The mechanics and motivations of both while they’re together are important, but the way those mechanics and motivations are handled is problematic. Peter says he broke up with Genevieve, or she broke up with him, but he never says why. He says he wants to get back together with her, but again never says why.
When Peter confronts Lara Jean about her letter, she says she’s no longer interested in him. She never says why but one assumes it’s because he’s dating Genevieve. However, she does say she’s into another boy who got a love-letter named Josh Sanderson, played by Israel Broussard (Happy Death Day and The Bling Ring), but the wrinkle is that Josh was also dating someone else, namely Lara Jean’s older sister, Margot. Why would her so-called feelings for Peter be affected if her so-called feelings for Josh wasn’t?
She makes a big deal about her feelings for Josh being current, as opposed to her feelings for the other four guys, but she doesn’t even try exploring a relationship with Josh. Yes, she’s embarrassed because he was dating her sister and her dating Josh would likely hurt her sister, but the amount of time spent on her feelings for Josh makes it seem odd that she or this movie would never explore that. It’s not even clear if Josh even wants to date or be romantic with Lara Jean. She never even asks and he never really says. She says her feelings for Josh faded and she sees him as just a friend, but she didn’t realize that until she started dating Peter, but it doesn’t exclude the possibility that her feelings for Josh could rise, if Peter decided to move away to college in another country for example. It still doesn’t make clear what distinguishes her being with either one.
None of that would even matter, if this movie had done more to establish Lara Jean as a person, independent of this idea that her only happiness is in being with a boy. Yes, I get that this is a romantic comedy with emphasis on the romance, but again we have no clue what Lara Jean’s interests are outside of boys. What are her hobbies or her passions? What does she want to be or do with her life? We don’t know and that’s a shame. A movie like Candy Jar, which came out on Netflix earlier this year did a better job with fleshing out the teen girl, so that she had her own passions and pursuits beyond being in a relationship.
Lastly, I have one nitpick, or rather two. Of the five guys who get love-letters, we only meet three. Peter and Josh are the first two. The third is Lucas James, played by Trezzo Maharo (Van Helsing). Lucas is black, but him being black isn’t the reason why it’s obvious that he and Lara Jean won’t date each other. The reason is because Lucas is gay. Now, the one scene where he comes out to Lara Jean is nice, but he needlessly pops up in other scenes for no reason. If you introduce a character like that and eschew homophobia, then give him a boyfriend. This movie doesn’t. Lucas just pops up just to pop up and be a friend to her, which is weird because Lara Jean already has a friend named Christine who gets sidelined or is just used as a Subway sandwich commercial. This movie also ignores the other two guys who got letters, which I don’t know why, and it would have been more interesting if she confronted those other guys too.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 39 mins.
Available on Netflix.