A sweetly enchanting tale of simple love and overly complicated romance.
As you’ve probably heard by now romantic comedies are making a comeback. Crazy Rich Asians had the biggest opening weekend for a rom-com in years, and on the smaller screen a little story about an awkward teen has struck a chord with fans of adorable things. That latter movie is the new Netflix Original, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, and it is as delightful, humorous, and heart-warming as you could hope.
Lara Jean (Lana Condor) is the middle child with two sisters, and as the oldest (Janel Parrish) heads off to college she leaves behind an ex-boyfriend too. Josh was one of Lara Jean’s first loves, one that like the others, she never acted on — aside from writing a detailed love letter that she addressed and hit away for safe keeping — and then regretted once he started dating Margot. She wrote five such letters over the years, and when her younger sister Kitty (Anna Cathcart) takes pity on her social life she decides to give it a boost by secretly mailing out all five of them.
Five love letters to boys she’s had intense feelings for over the years — all mailed out at once.
It’s a fun, high-concept conceit at the center of To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, but character and personality remain at the forefront throughout. Similarly, while the film teases the possibility of heading into territory tread by the likes of The Taming of the Shrew, She’s All That, and other familiar rom-coms, the focus stays on Lara Jean’s relationships to her family and the simple but effective theme of staying true to herself.
The family dynamic, which also includes their single father (John Corbett), is so beautifully executed and sweet that they’re a joy to watch together even without plot swirling about. Their banter, chemistry, and clear affection for each other goes a long way towards building an endearing watch, and the character of Lara Jean only continues that trend. Story beats arise that feel predictable as tropes, and while she embraces some of them she turns her back on others in ways that just feel real.
Director Susan Johnson and writer Sofia Alvarez (adapting Jenny Han‘s novel) craft a bright, colorful film that looks on the surface to be little more than a light and breezy time for teens, but it manages to be both that and a sharp, affecting, and believable tale of the bumpy road to young love. It’s smart enough to know that something can be the biggest, most important “thing” in their lives only to be overshadowed by some new drama the next day. The film recognizes the language teens speak, and it never tries to stylize or ramp it up to make them smarter than their years for the sake of catchy dialogue.
But there’s plenty more traditionally recognizable rom-com fun too as Lara Jean’s dilemma lands her in a pretend relationship with a boy named Peter (Noah Centineo) to avoid dealing with Josh and to make Peter’s ex jealous. I’ll pause here to note that to my eyes Peter and Josh are twins, but that just goes to show the girl has a type. Hi-jinks ensue, Gen (Emilija Baranac) the ex sets out to embarrass her, shady shenanigans go down on a ski trip, and even as the big picture grows more familiar it’s all handled so smoothly and expertly. We’re enjoying our time with these characters and care for them at the same time, and that’s no small feat for a rom-com.
The various elements all work terrifically together, but the film is a star-making turn for Condor who shows immense energy and likability. Even better for the “com” half of rom-com she’s also in possession of sharp comedy chops. From her expressions to the timing of her responses, she’s a firecracker who deserves to headline more features soon.
To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before is the sweetest 99 minutes you’re likely to find on Netflix (or anywhere), so settle in and enjoy a delightful burst of sunshine. (And be sure to stay through the end credits too.)
The Upside: Lana Condor is a delight, teens feel appropriately smart, welcome diversity that feels natural
The Downside: The “mean girl” character is dated and flat