From the moment this Netflix Original begins, with Lara Jean Covey (Lana Condor) imagining herself wandering through an idyllic field with the boy of her dreams, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before screams “self-indulgent romance fantasy.” It’s the quintessential teen rom-com: there’s the shy main character, two pouty Hot Boys (Noah Centineo and Israel Broussard) and the crucial misunderstanding that forces her to pick between them. Every character is addressed by their full name and speaks in Tumblr-ready quotes (“Josh Sanderson, I liked you first. By all rights, you were mine.”) Add a fake dating plot, a hair-flipping jealous mean girl and a supportive rebel best friend, and you’ve got a full-blown cliché. To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before is tropey and cheesy and gooey, but in a good way. It revels in its purest rom-com moments because it knows exactly what it is. It doesn’t have to be subversive or edgy to succeed; it promises to be a cute teen romance and delivers on that promise with flair.
First off, the cinematography in this movie is gorgeous. Every scene is full of vibrant, popping colors, from Lara Jean’s bright blue bedroom to the bold orange knee socks she wears in the final scene. The characters and props are almost always framed with lots of negative space, and you could pull enough gorgeous stills to rival Wes Anderson’s work. Every outfit is impeccably styled, and the film uses Lara Jean’s hair to not-so-subtly illustrate her growth from a shy kid (pigtails) to a shy teenager (high ponytail) to a confident woman (long hair).
At its heart, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before is a story about growing up and trading the safety of imagination for real life. The film makes a point of telling the audience that Lara Jean loves losing herself in romanticized worlds where true love comes easily. She’s rarely seen without her stash of “bodice-ripper” romance novels, makes references to John Hughes movies and loses herself in the exploits of the Golden Girls. And yet instead of condemning the cutesy romance genre, urging viewers to live in the real world, the movie enjoys its brand of self-indulgence.
Everything about the world of To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before is idealized. Lara Jean has the perfect boyfriend, a cute “king of the cafeteria crowd” who’s even nice to waiters (#TeamPeterKavinsky). She herself has perfect hair and no shortage of perfect outfits. A classmate’s party takes place in a perfect house with a swanky bathroom and a fish tank the size of a refrigerator. Her perfect, supportive friends only exist to push her towards her happy ending. Every hat box, bicycle and scrunchie exists to help the viewer escape into this candy-coated world. The most obvious example of escapism, however, lies in the fact that Lara Jean’s problems are easily solved by a few confrontations and a cleaning montage. It’s the type of movie you watch on a particularly tough, rainy afternoon with a cup of tea if you want to lose your own problems in someone else’s easily solvable ones.
The amount that the movie idealizes Lara Jean’s world is impressive considering the film’s protagonist—a young Asian-American girl. Most high school romances feature a white lead, with Asian characters, if they exist at all, being relegated to sidekicks and comic relief. To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, aware of the history of its own genre, acknowledges this in a scene where Lara Jean and Peter are watching the “extremely racist” Long Duk Dong from Sixteen Candles. Learning from Sixteen Candles and similar movies’ mistakes, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before seamlessly integrates Lara Jean’s identity with the familiar rom-com template, providing a role model for an underrepresented demographic.
Despite its excellence in cinematography, heart and representation, there are some parts of the movie that don’t quite work. The casting of 29-year-old Janel Parrish as Lara Jean’s 18-year-old sister feels especially awkward and makes the almost love triangle between the sisters and Josh Sanderson less believable. The entire movie is haunted by Josh making sad eyes at Lara Jean, stepping in occasionally to remind us that he doesn’t approve of his romantic rival, Peter. On top of this, a few side characters feel one-dimensional and a couple of side plots don’t wrap up as completely as they should, but all of this can be easily overlooked since the rest of the film is just so enjoyable. In the words of Lara Jean: “Being with Peter was so good that sometimes I let myself forget it was fake.”
Olivia Bono is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org