TV Review – To All the Boys: P.S. I Still Love You
Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed in this review are solely those of Marlon Wallace and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of WBOC.
This is the sequel to the hit film To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before (2018), which has a success that can’t be measured in traditional ways. Netflix hasn’t released official numbers, but the streaming platform said the film was one of its “most viewed original films ever with strong repeat viewing.” The numbers that we do have are the social media numbers for the two actors who starred in the film. Both actors went from having under a million followers each to having over 5 million followers. And for one, his followers went to 13 million immediately after the film’s release. The online buzz was also greater and more intense than a lot of the films distributed by Netflix up to that point. It made celebrities out of its two leads, especially the male lead who became an instant sex symbol or teen heartthrob. A sequel was very predictable and here it is.
In my review of the first film, I pointed out the references to John Hughes and similar romantic comedies of the 1980’s. The difference is that it put a minority in the lead whereas the cast of Hughes’ films were probably white and at times offensive to minorities, specifically Asian-Americans. Here, my principal problem is the underdevelopment of that minority lead or rather the myopic focus of her love interests to the exclusion of other interests. This sequel does address a criticism that I had about the first film not really exploring why the main girl was in love with the group of guys she claimed to love. Through which, we do get more insight into her, but she still feels like she only exists as a person whose only purpose is to be a girlfriend. This film even points out that criticism but never proceeds to do much about it.
Lana Condor (Alita: Battle Angel and X-Men: Apocalypse) stars as Lara Jean, a Korean-American high school student in Portland, Oregon. She’s either a junior or senior at this point. Aside from her classes, she goes to volunteer at a retirement home. She seems to like visiting the aquarium. That’s really the extent of the interests we learn about her other than boys. She’s still a teenager, so she’s not expected to be fully formed. She’s a virgin after all and probably more than a year or so from college. She’s not expected to have everything about herself be known or solved. Yet, for this film not to spotlight any kind of vision of what she might be beyond being a girl in love is frustrating and disappointing.
Understandably, the premise of the previous feature was about her romantic life and which boy she would end up dating. The extension of that premise is perfectly fine, but to do so with a hollow or mostly blank character whom doesn’t get filled or developed much is again frustrating and disappointing. I suppose other successful teen romances like Twilight (2008) had similar hollow or blank female characters, but one hopes that we can do better in the decade since.
Noah Centineo (Charlie’s Angels and The Fosters) co-stars as Peter Kravinski, the athlete and jock who is the veritable king of the school. He’s the most popular kid. We get enough about him and who he is in the previous feature. He’s charming. He’s funny. He’s engaging. He’s the tall, handsome heartthrob with whom Lara Jean spent so much time and with whom she fell in love on a seemingly deeper level than what was initially established.
The premise of the previous was that Lara Jean wrote five love letters to five guys with whom she claimed to love. She never intended to send them, but her sister finds the letters and sends them. Peter is one of the five guys. Through a series of rom-com hijinks, she ends up eschewing away the other four potential guys and dedicates herself to Peter. Usually, in a rom-com or fairy tale, this is where the story ends, but obviously in real life, falling in love and choosing a relationship are just step one. Step two is actually being in that relationship and trying to make things last, despite issues and troubles that might arise. Part of that is determining if there is compatibility for a long-term relationship and another part is battling possible other love interests, which is essentially the crux of this sequel.
Jordan Fisher (Liv and Maddie and The Secret Life of the American Teenager) also co-stars as John Ambrose McClaren. He’s one of the five guys who received one of Lara Jean’s love letters. In the previous feature, his character pops up at the end. Yet, the character was played by a different actor, a white actor. However, in an article for IndieWire, that previous feature was criticized for having Lara Jean’s love interests be predominantly boys who are white and specifically none whom were Asian. Fisher is a mixed race actor, so it seems likely that Fisher’s casting as a replacement to the previous white actor is in response to that criticism.
Basically, it comes down to Lara Jean having anxieties about her relationship with Peter because he’s more experienced. She’s never been in any kind of relationship. She’s never had sex. Peter has been in a relationship and he has had sex, so this unequal footing has her constantly creating doubts in her head, which are expressed in voice-over narration. She’s nervous and increasingly jealous because of Peter’s continued friendship with his ex-girlfriend, Genevieve, played by Emilija Baranac (Riverdale). She possibly has feelings of inadequacy. Things get complicated when John Ambrose shows up at her volunteer job and ostensibly starts flirting with her.
Unfortunately, John Ambrose becomes a borderline version of the Manic Pixie Dream Boy. He basically is presented as this perfect creation that merely exists solely for Lara Jean to love. He has no flaws and seemingly no existence that is separate from her. It makes him even less interesting ultimately than the characters in Twilight and its sequels. Unlike Twilight, I’m not sure that this film does enough to convince us that John Ambrose could be a viable person that would actually make Lara Jean fall in love as she did with Peter. Their scenes are a series of superficial connections that don’t really add up to anything substantial.
There are also two things that are frustrating. The first is something that was frustrating about the previous feature. It involves the character of Lucas, played by Trezzo Mahoro. Lucas was one of the five guys who received one of Lara Jean’s love letters. He was the only non-white person of the five. However, he was eliminated immediately as a potential boyfriend because he’s gay. My frustration is that the previous feature did nothing with his homosexuality. He’s simply limited to being a token character in that regard, which could be excused in the previous feature. Yet, he’s brought back for this film as now one of Lara Jean’s friends. Yet, again, nothing is done about his homosexuality. He mentions not having any options unlike Lara Jean, but merely mentioning it isn’t enough.
The final frustrating thing is the possibility that’s implied in the title but also the previous film’s premise that is never fully explored or drawn to its logical conclusion. Lara Jean wrote letters to five guys, so clearly she was in love with five guys at once. This suggests polyamory for Lara Jean or that she has the ability to love more than one person at once, something we haven’t seen in film since Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It (1986). Yet, ultimately, the film devolves to the idea of monogamy as the end all be all, as if there is supposed to be one person who is the end all be all for her or anyone. This is not really realistic as it is the stuff of fairy tales. Yes, monogamy is the norm for American society, but for this film to default to monogamy as the end result undercuts the purpose of Lara Jean even having love letters to multiple guys, unless we surrender the idea that so-called “true love” is merely something circumstantial and based more on timing, luck and happenstance.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 42 mins.
Available on Netflix.