“To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before” Review: A charming, genuine high school rom-com

Lana Condor stars as Lara Jean Covey, desperate to conceal her feelings for her sister’s ex-boyfriend by entering into a fake relationship with another past crush

Starring Lana Condor, Noah Centineo, Janel Parrish, Anna Cathcart, Andrew Bachelor, Trezzo Mahoro, Madeleine Arthur, Emilija Baranac, Israel Broussard, and John Corbett

High school rom-coms are an immensely relatable and beloved genre of film. There’s a sense of familiarity within them even to people whose schooling life didn’t perfectly reflect the events in movies such as Mean Girls or 10 Things I Hate About You. Even without the particulars of going to school without school uniforms (baffling), there’s a universality to many of the tropes on display: the uncertainty and insecurity of first loves and crushes; the overwhelming amount of adolescent emotion, almost as if everything is being felt in capital letters; the need for approval from others, and the acceptance of your peers, and also the need to discover yourself: what things you enjoy, or don’t, and what you think is just or unjust – generally by making mistakes and experiencing a whole lot of discomfort. This is precisely why brilliant films such as Mean Girls, 10 Things I Hate About You, Clueless, A Cinderella Story, She’s the Man or It’s a Boy/Girl Thing have such enduring appeal: as a teenager, with the rush and excitement still very much prevalent and also a nostalgic reminder of what it was like to shed the protective layers of yourself for the first time – to expose yourself physically, and emotionally, to the first blossoming of love.

Or what you thought was love but was really just one massive cry for help that really, retrospectively, somebody probably should’ve talked you out of, or maybe just told you that you’re not fat or ugly and you are, in fact, worthy of love and attention and you don’t have to like somebody just because they make you feel like you have value and you’re worried nobody else will see it. No? Just me? Awkward. Moving on.

Sure, none of the aforementioned films are perfect: they are vaguely problematic, pushing forth heteronormative and white narratives which often perpetuate harmful ideas about virginity and appropriate female behaviour, and seem to suggest that any man who isn’t a jerk must innately be a god, especially if they have abs, but representation is slowly seeping its way into the genre. 2018’s Love, Simon for example is a theatrically-released LGBTQ+ high school romcom, and To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before features an Asian American protagonist in Lara Jean (Lana Condor). The fact that only Netflix was willing to take on the movie adaptation without whitewashing its lead is further evidence that even though we live in what people delight in assuming is a tolerant and equal society, the media industry is still steeped in institutional racism that will require conscious effort to dismantle.

Based upon Jenny Han’s book of the same name, To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before follows Lara Jean Covey, a painfully shy and practically invisible girl who deals with her crushes by writing letters that she never intends to send, but instead conceals in a box in her wardrobe. Crucially, however, she does address and stamp the envelopes, just in case her younger sister Kitty (Anna Cathcart) wanted to sneakily mail them for reasons ill-defined and never really confronted other than it’s the impetus behind the entire narrative. One of the recipients of the letters is Josh (Israel Broussard) who, up until recently, was dating Lara Jean’s older sister Margot (Janel Parrish). To avoid the emotional confrontation with Josh, and not wanting to hurt Margot’s feelings, Lara Jean starts a fake relationship with another recipient of one of her letters, Peter (Noah Centineo); a situation that proves mutually beneficial by convincing Josh that she doesn’t have feelings for him as well as making Peter’s ex, Gen (Emilija Baranac), who used to be LJ’s best friend, jealous – because who doesn’t love a multi-layered narrative (I hope you’re keeping up, by the way).

The success of a film like this lives or dies through the performances of its central couple. Ultimately, the plot doesn’t do very much that’s unpredictable, so the audience will mainly be hooked by how well the two spark together. Fortunately, Condor and Centineo have this in spades. Condor completely nails the wide-eyed, innocent and disarming honesty of Lara Jean, while Centineo is just effortlessly charming, going beyond just what the genre expects the character to be, and giving Peter a real sense of warmth and kindness.

Often, teen romcoms like this are punctuated by a third act dramatic speech, in which the main character, who has been running from their feelings all along, finally tells the truth and reveals their innermost secrets. In Mean Girls, this is where Cady speaks at Prom, apologising for her previous actions and making amends. In 10 Things I Hate About You, it’s that poem. In A Cinderella Story, it’s when Sam confronts Austin about how she is unafraid of being herself and isn’t willing to hide anymore. There’s always a third act proclamation in which the main character sheds the dishonesty that they held previously and comes to terms with their truth.

To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before does subvert this expectation somewhat, with Lara Jean’s cathartic shedding coming as the impetus for the entire plot. As a result, her interactions with Peter are actually more genuine than her interactions with anybody else in the film, especially at first. It’s a refreshing change, meaning there’s no misunderstanding between the two about who Lara Jean truly is or any secrets she’s been concealing. Lara Jean and Peter are on the same page nearly the whole way, and even though her entire fake relationship is born out of a desire to run from her feelings, Lara Jean does not attempt to conceal her growing attraction to Peter from him. It’s rare to see a relationship quite so communicative and vulnerable as the connection that Lara Jean and Peter have.

Finally, there’s an immensely relatable air to Lara Jean. Feeling invisible and shy and unknown is something that many teenagers experience, and is especially true of the teenagers who will find themselves represented in Lara Jean. The persistent mental toll of not seeing oneself reflected in the media has a significant bearing on one’s own self worth and feelings of visibility, and Condor plays it beautifully.

To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before does little to surprise, but is a refreshing and charming teen romcom that has proved massively successful for Netflix.

To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before is available to stream now on Netflix.

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