Written by: Fiona Underhill, CC2K Staff Writer
Based on a best-selling novel by Jenny Han, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before joins Netflix’s growing slate of rom-coms, in particular teen rom-coms. This is a trend I am very much in favor of and have enjoyed recent offerings such as The Kissing Booth, Set it Up and Ibiza. The story follows 16-year-old Lara Jean who lives with her two sisters and widowed Dad (played by John Corbett). Lara Jean’s older sister Margot (Janel Parrish) has a long-term boyfriend – the literal boy-next-door, Josh (Israel Broussard). However, he used to be Lara Jean’s best friend and she has also developed romantic feelings for him. Margot is going to college in Scotland and breaks up with Josh to avoid long-distance relationship problems. Lara Jean has had five serious crushes in her life and the way she has dealt with each has been to write them a letter, confess her feelings, but keep the letters in a pretty box her mother gave her in the closet.
As with most teen movies (eg. Eighth Grade), Lara Jean is not a popular girl at school and doesn’t have much of a social life. In fact, she spends a Saturday night with her younger sister Kitty (Anna Cathcart) watching Golden Girls which prompts Kitty to stage a secret intervention of sorts; she finds Lara Jean’s letters (which she has improbably put in envelopes with full addresses) and decides to post them.
This is the catalyst for everything that follows. The first boy to confront Lara Jean about the letters is Peter Kavinsky (Noah Centineo), who Lara Jean kissed during a Middle School game of spin-the-bottle. Peter is now dating Lara Jean’s former-best-friend-turned-nemesis Genevieve (Emilija Baranac). At the exact same time, Josh tries to approach Lara Jean about his letter. So, in classic teen rom-com style, Peter and Lara Jean come up with an elaborate scheme – they are going to pretend to date to make Gen jealous and also so Lara Jean can avoid dealing with Josh.
What follows is in the same tradition as teen rom-coms of the ’90s and ’00s (usually based on Shakespeare plays, for some reason) such as 10 Things I Hate About You, She’s The Man and Get Over It – which is only a good thing. The overly complicated plots lead to misunderstandings and conflicts which could be avoided if the characters were just honest with each other, but where would be the fun in that?
To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before contains a tiny prologue of Lara Jean imagining herself in a period romance novel and I wish more had been made of this – these fantasy sequences could have continued throughout. Initially, I was frustrated that the two main boys in the love triangle, Peter and Josh look similar; however, as the film goes on, Peter’s charms become more obvious and Josh seems pretty bland. There is one fairly steamy scene (for a teen rom-com) that takes place in a hot-tub at the ski cabin they go to for a field trip. I noticed that the Netflix rom-coms have upped features such as cursing and sex scenes (even in something like The Kissing Booth) and it’s easy to pay no attention to what rating these films are before they start. I don’t have an issue with this, but may feel differently if I was the parent of a tween girl (aged 10-12) who is likely to be attracted to a film about 16-year-olds.
There is one thing that makes To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before stand out from other teen rom-coms and films in general. It absolutely should not be significant in 2018, but unfortunately it is still extremely rare for an American film to have an Asian-American lead. Coincidentally, we also have the rom-com Crazy Rich Asians coming to theaters Friday. There has been much controversy in the last few years about the white-washing of Asian characters in Hollywood films, with Scarlett Johansson, Tilda Swinton and Emma Stone coming under fire. The hashtag #StarringJohnCho was a social media movement designed to highlight what it would look like if mainstream Hollywood films had Asian leads. Coincidentally, John Cho is starring in a film opening wide this month called Searching, which could be his biggest box-office hit. It is hoped this is not just a trend and fashionable for a moment or a month. This should be the start of seeing a diverse range of actors from a wide range of backgrounds in different types of roles, not just pigeon-holed as stereotypical characters in certain genres.
I really hope tweens and teens discover To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before on Netflix (and that it is effectively promoted by them) as it is a lovely, gentle, feel-good romantic film. It doesn’t belittle or mock a teen girl or her crushes, and adults will watch with nostalgic affection, surely down to fact the director and writers are women. It also focuses on family; the strong bonds of sisterhood (which is very well-acted by the three young girls) and the huge gap in their lives because of losing their mother. John Corbett joins Nick Offerman and Josh Hamilton as 2018’s Best Single Dads. It also shows the conflicts that arise between friends when love-interests are added to the mix, as Lara Jean neglects her best friend Chris (Madeleine Arthur). So, it is portraying a fully-rounded teen girl and boys are just one aspect of her life.
Jenny Han’s novel has sequels, so it will be interesting to see if the film gets a follow-up, particularly within the Netflix model. I am on-board with this resurgence in romantic films (particularly those written by and/or directed by women), and the fact that we are FINALLY getting Asian-Americans lead films in genres they have not traditionally been associated with. There are many reasons to support this film when it comes to Netflix; it’s also really good, entertaining and enjoyable!
To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before hits Netflix Friday
Author: Fiona Underhill, CC2K Staff Writer
Brit living in Southern California.
Former teacher of Media and Film Studies.
Current film writer for jumpcutonline.com, moviejawn.com and others.