I used to hate rom-coms as a teenager. The trite categorisation of all human life into tribes; ‘the jock’, ‘the nerd’ etc. drove me mad. John Hughes fabulous 1985 hit The Breakfast Club was an incredible teen film and perfectly of it’s time, but it’s many, many imitators sucked, with the same formula becoming very tiresome over the last 30 years. Girls only got the guy after they made themselves pretty and men with feelings were portrayed as weak and needy. Thankfully that tired, old, formula of ‘pretty white girl falls for pretty white boy, boy is unattainable, girl gets makeover’ is long dead and instead we have charming gems like To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before.
Now, yes, all the characters in Susan Johnson’s film ARE pretty. And yes, they do all live in beautiful houses and live lives where money appears to be no object, but we do at least have a slight move to a more nuanced and realistic view of the world and individuality.
Based on Jenny Han’s successful young adult romantic novel, Sofia Alvarez and Susan Johnson bring a wonderfully female-centric and fun view of the life of a teenage girl to the screen.
16 year old Lara-Jean Song Covey (a thoroughly relatable performance by Lana Condor) is a girl who has retreated into a world of fantasy, a world shaped by her love of romance novels. Sharing her house with her two sisters and her gynaecologist father, she’d rather be at home fantasising about a life should could have than be out living it. Her romantic fantasies get transferred to paper as she tries to exorcise her feelings for her various crushes by writing them intense love letters, which she keeps hidden in a box given to her by her late mother. Following her elder sister Margot’s (a somewhat miscast Janel Parrish- I don’t buy her as a teenager for one second) departure to College in Scotland the five intense letters find their way to the objects of Lara-Jean’s affection, including to Margot’s ex-boyfriend, Josh. However where in traditional rom-com land a convoluted plot about girls falling out, boys getting the girl and some kind of final dance happening, instead (without giving too much away) we are given a really sweet love story about complicated characters.
There are no ‘jocks’ or ‘nerds’ in To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before. Sure, some characters play sport and some love fashion, but this is a slightly more rounded view of the world without ‘good’ or ‘bad’ people, just human beings making sometimes ill-thought-through decisions.
Lara-Jean’s Korean heritage is not something which defines her character. There are references to kombucha and Korean yoghurt drinks (good old Yakult) but it’s not ever painted as an issue. She just IS half-Korean.
Similarly letter-recipient Peter Kavinsky (the charming Noah Centineo) plays sports, but he’s not just a jock. He’s far more layered, which makes for a far more interesting story.
A third wheel appears in the love story: social media. Lara-Jean begins to replace one fantasy land with another as she starts to play out an alternate fake life online. The use of social media is well played throughout and manages not to feel clumsy and an integral part of the plot.
Despite the charm and likeability of Peter Kavinsky this is an assuredly female-centric story. We follow Lara-Jean’s trials and tribulations as she begins to work out who she is.
To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before is everything you’d hope for in a teen rom-com in 2018. It’s fun, comforting and will give you a warm fuzzy feeling. It’s the teen film John Hughes would have made, had he been making films today.
Directed by: Susan Johnson
Cast: Lana Condor, Noah Centineo, Janel Parrish