Warning: this review contains minor spoilers for To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before.
Remember high school? Wish you didn’t? Yeah, me too. In the age of the modern high school movie, filmmakers seem more and more intent on getting into all the embarrassing crevices, feelings of anxiety, and twinkles of friendship that teenage years hold. While classics like The Breakfast Club may come with servings of nuance and hard-hitting emotional resonance, a lot of today’s coming of age flicks stick to the lighter, romantic side of things. Some people might see this as a cop-out, but I personally see value in something unaware of itself, if done right.
When Lara Jean’s (Lana Condor) secret love letters to past crushes spread around school and end up in the hands of the boys she had written about, her world gets much more complicated. Passive and a loner, Lara Jean spends most of her time alone or hanging out with her 11-year-old sister. When she’s not doing that she’s pining over her older sister’s boyfriend, Josh. When her inner-most feelings land straight on the laps of the boys she fantasises about (including Josh), she devises a plan with Peter, one of the other past crushes. Peter wants to make his ex-girlfriend jealous and Lara Jean wants to get over her feelings for Josh so she doesn’t hurt her sister, who recently broke up with him. The pair come up with a solution and land themselves in what is essentially a fake dating scenario straight out of fan-fiction. All of this might sound a bit sickly, but keep in mind the target audience. The concept seems to be straight out a 16-year-old’s nightmares. I might be an adult and too bitter to fully appreciate the up and downs, but even I got a little wrapped up in it. It takes a while, but even the most popular boy in school is eventually moved past his stereotype.
It was also refreshing to see such a generic plot from a different perspective. Lara Jean and her sisters are Asian-American and lost their mother when they were young. Instead of this being used for a quick backdrop to set the scene, their experiences as a family are referred to throughout. I wouldn’t exactly call this movie emotionally intelligent, but it keeps its palette changing and doesn’t get stuck in its romance routine as much as one might expect. Lara Jean’s sisters provide a bit of humour that sweetens the deal too. They are at two ends of the scale: one is in the midst of moving to college and the other is very young, meaning we get to see multiple sides of Lara Jean and how she operates not just as a struggling girl with a crush, but as a sister who is relied upon and relies on her sisters for help.
“I know you’re only being nice to me because I accidentally made a sex-tape and you feel bad.”
The first half hour was shaky and I had doubts going forward, but To All the Boys finds its groove and settles into itself when complications start to arise in Lara Jean’s fake coupling with Peter. Looking back, it’s a bit strange how much Josh is pretty much disregarded for most of the runtime and there are a few other sub-plots/characters that are never really tied up, but as someone who expected to see the narrative go a certain way, I was relieved to see it didn’t and enjoyed the turns along the way. Sofia Alvarez’s screenplay is occasionally cheesy and clumsy, but I’d be lying if I said there weren’t moments that made my cold dusty heart go all fuzzy. I was very much of the belief before reaching a certain point in the film that there was no way I was going to care about any of this, but I ended up caring just enough. It doesn’t bring anything particularly new to the table, but it goes about its business in a way that creates real warmth.
From a technical standpoint, I thought it was pretty good. There’s a lot of wide-angle cinematography with nice framing and high contrast colours with deep reds and blues. It occasionally looked a bit murky but stands out in the interiors like Lara Jean’s bedroom. Don’t you love it when teenage bedrooms in movies actually look like teenage bedrooms? A lot of care was put into building a homey atmosphere around the house as Lara Jean does normal kid things like movie nights. However, the editing isn’t something I would rate highly. There’s a habit of center-framing during reverse shots of back and forth dialogue that bring attention to where the cuts are and shots spatially feel off as a result. Editing should never be that noticeable and it causes a stilted flow. Things like this, and a lack of depth, stop it from progressing into something as fully realized as Love, Simon, but I enjoyed most aspects. I do wish the soundtrack was a bit subtler, though.
Lana Condor’s outing as a kid in crisis and the supporting band of likable characters, although small, are delightful and To All the Boys only gets better as it progresses through its below 2-hour runtime. We all love to blame third acts for film failures but that shan’t be happening here. Susan Johnson’s direction only strengthens as it finds its feet. It might not dive as deep into some things as I would have liked, but it keeps the pace snappy.
To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before provides a refreshing perspective and surpasses the expectations of its cliché premise, becoming a teenage daydream manifested on-screen. Its personality takes a while to come out of its shell, but it’s more than worth the wait if light romance is what you’re after. It might not tick the boxes for everyone but I think it’s perfect for its intended audience and comes with a good message. Unexpectedly witty and one of Netflix’s best recent offerings.