I watched To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before last week — twice, actually, because as much as I like to scorn cliché and make fun of it, I really am a hopeless sap when it comes down to it, and also because it was so damn cute and sweet and wholesome.
Much of this sweetness and wholesomeness results from the fact that the film makes copious use of the tropes we’re familiar with in high school rom-coms. Even the characters are in on this; the film’s protagonist, Lara Jean Covey, is obsessed with romance novels, and her shock is apparent when she finds out her fake boyfriend Peter Kavinsky has never heard of Sixteen Candles. Similarly, much of the film’s fashion takes inspiration from the ‘90s, what with its plaid skirts and slip dresses, combat boots, chokers and leather jackets. However, the movie manages to be referential in such an earnest, wholehearted and honest way that it’s hard not to like it.
Good, old-fashioned sorts of teen movies like this seemed to have been waning in popularity for the better part of this past decade. Recently, however, Netflix has released several of them, though none struck me the way that this one did. While some might complain about the lack of originality in modern cinema, I think there’s something to be said for a tried-and-true formula being used well, and lovingly.
To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before updates the standard conventions for the 21st century; the misfit, awkward-yet-still-witty female lead is Korean-American, funny and intelligent and shy without being insecure. The love interest is a jock but not without substance, kindness or consideration. The portrayal of Lara Jean’s close relationship with her sisters and father in the wake of her mother’s death also brings a lot more humanity and depth to the story.
The movie got me to reminiscing about high school, and feeling weirdly nostalgic about it. I say weirdly nostalgic because I kind of hated high school while I was actually in it. However, running parallel to that experience was a kind of imagined, idealized fantasy teenagedom, borrowed from Mean Girls, Heathers, Clueless, 10 Things I Hate About You, Jawbreaker, Dazed and Confused, all those John Hughes movies, etc. etc. — the list goes on.
As Pablo Neruda wrote, “Old movies / are / secondhand dreams.” Perhaps this is true of all good movies, whether new or old.
When I try to recall high school — that vague, hideously awkward era — scenes from such movies spring to mind more easily than events that actually happened to me. Is this just a reflection of my own sad, introverted adolescence — perhaps what Lara Jean’s would’ve been like if her little sister hadn’t sent those letters to her crushes? Probably. But maybe it’s also worth noting the ways that fiction eclipses reality at times, turning it into something more profound, less prosaic than it really was. Does it matter whether our memories were factual, as long as they feel real?
For many of the people who made these classic teen movies, being a teenager is remembered as candy-coated, filled with laughter, immense, formative. Even the bad moments, seem, in retrospect, to have had their charm. Didn’t we often hear, from parents or other well-meaning adults, that these were supposed to be the best years of our life?
But for many of my friends and others in our generation, a great deal of this time was spent stressing out over grades and exams, worrying about our uncertain futures, feeling as though we were rushing headlong down our preordained paths without knowing if that was really what we wanted or not.
Nevertheless, these years still occupy an important place in memory. Studies have shown that there is even such a thing as the “reminiscence bump” — the inclination for older adults to have greater recollection of events from adolescence and early adulthood when asked to recall moments from their lives. During this time, we begin to form and understand our identities, and the movies, books, music, etc. that we are exposed to have a far greater impact on us.
So maybe this is why, despite all its cheesiness and cliché, I still love the teen movie genre. Or maybe it’s just because I enjoy sitting down with a familiar flick and reliving experiences that were never mine. Well, whatever it is, I think I’m going to go and watch Heathers for the umpteenth time now.
Ramya Yandava is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected]. Ramy’s Rambles runs alternating Tuesdays this semester.