There is something timeless about To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, the new Netflix teen rom-com based on Jenny Han’s bestselling young adult novel. Maybe it’s the fact that its conflict revolves around letter writing or that its protagonist’s view on love is strongly influenced by John Hughes’ movies. It’s a rare quality to find in a film like this one, where teen movies often feel like a time capsule, embodying a pop cultural perspective of its era. Although it’s very much set in today’s world, where a video can go viral on Instagram or sisters can Skype across continents, To All the Boys simmers in nostalgia by paying homage to the great teen comedies of the past. However, the film manages to make its own mark with its charismatic cast and engaging filmmaking style.
Screenwriter Sofia Alvarez and director Susan Johnson adapt the novel to screen, relying on the classic romantic comedy formula. Lara Jean Song Covey (Lana Condor) is learning to navigate high school without her big sister, Margot (Janel Parrish), who just moved to Scotland for college—not before dumping her boyfriend, Josh (Israel Broussard), Lara Jean’s neighbor, friend and former crush. It makes things awkward for Lara Jean, and being at school feels lonely as we see her move from the cafeteria to the library to find a spot for lunch. Even her little sister, Kitty (Anna Cathcart), recognizes that Lara Jean needs to get out of her shell. Mysteriously, the next week, Lara Jean’s love letters—she writes one to every she crush she has but never sends them—are mailed and received by their intended recipients. Now, she needs to deal with the consequences of her former crushes knowing her feelings about them. In order to avoid a confrontation with Josh, one of the love letter recipients, she strikes a deal with another recipient, the recently broken-up jock, Peter Kavinsky (Noah Centineo), who wants his ex-girlfriend back. To keep Josh away and to make Peter’s ex jealous, they pretend to be a couple until they get their desired outcomes.
Obviously, that exact kind of setup in a rom-com is geared not to turn out as the characters initially expect. This is where the movie shines in how it develops Lara Jean’s relationship with Peter. The director crafts each frame with the same thought and care that Lara Jean puts into her letters. The use of mise-en-scène in Lara Jean’s messy bedroom or when she and Peter open up to each other in their small town’s quaint diner adds a sense of depth and detail to their world. Even the perspective of the shots, where the actors stare directly at the camera, involve the viewer and help us clearly see the emotions on Lara Jean and Peter’s faces as their relationship evolves.
Lana Condor and Noah Centineo have a quiet chemistry that sells this romantic comedy. They create a nice build that intensifies through the film, making them undoubtedly the beating heart of the film. Condor recalls Molly Ringwald, with her shy but straightforward performance of Lara Jean. Whereas, Centineo, who is also the male romantic lead in the upcoming teen rom-com Sierra Burgess Is a Loser, is like a new Freddie Prinze Jr., tall, dark and handsome with an easy charm that viewers will find irresistible. Condor and Centineo also join John Corbett, who plays Lara Jean’s dad, with Janel Parrish of Pretty Little Liars and Anna Cathcart, who play Lara Jean’s sisters. It would be remiss if I didn’t comment on the sisters and their delightful dynamic in the film. While I wish the movie spent more screen-time on the sisters and delved into the loss of their mother, they did a sufficient job of showing how close they are with each other and their lovable dad, who they care for as much as he cares for them.
To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before is a wonderful addition to Netflix’s new oeuvre of romantic comedies. It introduces new stars in Lana Condor and Noah Centineo and delivers a movie that is, while predictable, endearing and unique enough to entertain both fans of the book and the rom-com genre, in general.