Premise: A teenage girl’s secret love letters are exposed and wreak havoc on her love life.
To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before is Netflix’s charming teen romance film based on the first of Jenny Han’s trilogy of novels. In adapting the story to film, screenwriter Sofia Alvarez and director Susan Johnson pack the ethos of classic John Hughes films into a modern teen world. They do so in an earnest and unironic way that feels refreshing in an age of cynicism and satire. Guided by a pair of very charismatic young stars, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before is a romantic teen drama you won’t soon forget.
Lara Jean (Lana Condor) is a well-rounded character whose arc throughout the movie is (thankfully) free of melodrama or shoddy plotting. Once the love letters she has written to her crushes get out, she reacts in a way befitting any awkward teenage girl. Her impulses to avoid the horrifying and humiliating reality of her situation feel authentic at the script level and are played extremely earnestly by Lana Condor. Condor brings Lara Jean to life by having a very strong grasp on the character’s vulnerability. It’s a joy to watch her navigate the drama befalling the character.
Noah Centineo’s performance as Peter provides the perfect counterbalance to Condor’s handling of Lara Jean. He brings a likeability to his performance of a guy with a specific reputation without being intimidating. The chemistry between the actors is wonderful. You believe they are from opposite social circles. Yet, the conceit of the film brings them together in an unconventional way. By having the pair fake a relationship, they draw themselves closer together. It’s a pretty straightforward plot, but it’s in the ways Condor and Centineo play their scenes together that elevates To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before past your standard romantic drama.
The film also goes the extra mile to pay wonderful homage to the work of John Hughes both by depicting realistic teen social classes in a Hughesian manner and by making Sixteen Candles figure into the plot. The film even calls attention to the racism of Sixteen Candles‘ Long Duk Dong character without being spiteful or preachy but also without letting it off the hook. More importantly, the film uses Sixteen Candles and John Hughes as a benchmark for Lara Jean’s expectations for love in contrast to her naivete and inexperience. To that end, To All the Boys feels like the perfect torch pass from the Hughes-era of teen drama to the modern day.
To All the Boys comes eight years after 2010’s Easy A attempted something similar in its homage to Hughes’ work. However, unlike Easy A, To All the Boys takes a more delicate approach to its John Hughes influence. Where Easy A posits a teen world of heightened personalities with a tongue in cheek look at Hughesian characters aware of the genre’s trappings, To All the Boys goes a different route. It doesn’t just feel like a playful reference to what has come before it in the genre. The tone of the film feels like a natural extension of the John Hughes era of teen comedy and angst, updated for a modern audience and 2010’s American culture.
When it comes to the complications that arise for Peter and Lara Jean as the film progresses there isn’t much surprise in store for audiences. In fact, the drama is fairly standard for the genre. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, however. To All the Boys‘ success lies in the chemistry between its stars and the strength of that chemistry makes any third act troubles far more easy to forgive. You want to see the romance blossom between them because you care about the characters despite any third act miscommunications or complications.
To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before is a strong debut for a trilogy of films following these characters. To All the Boys: P.S. I Still Love You is currently on Netflix (review forthcoming) and To All the Boys: Always and Forever, Lara Jean is currently in post-production. This first film is a very enjoyable and promising start to what could be a strong trilogy, if the quality can be sustained. For now, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before is a strong teen romance film that doesn’t just pay homage to what’s come before it, but proves it can hold its own in the pantheon of strong teen romance films.
About the Writer: Matt Hurt is the creator of ObsessiveViewer.com. He also created, hosts, and produces The Obsessive Viewer, Anthology, and Tower Junkies podcasts. He is a member of the Indiana Film Journalists Association and lives in Indianapolis with his cat Pizza Roll.