Watching Susan Johnson’s adaptation of Jenny Han’s novel To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before was like boarding a time machine where I didn’t have to interact with the pain of high school drama. It took me back to a time when the most important thing in the world was whether or not someone “liked” you, and how it all gets built up in your head as a drama of monumental stakes. But To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before also provides a safe barrier, like watching the drama unfold behind shatterproof glass, allowing you to appreciate the emotions being embraced without ever sinking back into your high school self and all the awkwardness that entails. Thanks to Johnson’s poppy, effervescent direction and great lead performances from Lana Condor and Noah Centineo, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before is a total winner that will have you cheering high school romance rather than mocking it from a safe distance.
Lara Jean Covey (Condor) has a crush on her next door neighbor, Josh (Israel Broussard), but she can’t act on it because Josh is dating Lara Jean’s sister, Margot (Janel Parrish). When Josh and Margot break up before Margot heads off to college in Scotland, Lara Jean sees a potential future, but before she can even figure things out, secret unsent letters to five crushes, including Josh, get mailed without Lara Jean’s knowledge. One of the letters goes to her 7th-grade crush, Peter (Centineo), who recently broke up with Genevieve (Emilija Baranac), Lara Jean’s former friend turned mortal enemy. After Lara Jean explains to Peter that the letters were old crushes and that she actually has feelings for Josh, Lara Jean and Peter devise a plan. They’ll pretend to be boyfriend and girlfriend so Peter can win back Genevieve and Lara Jean can win over Josh. What wasn’t part of the plan is when Lara Jean and Peter start falling for each other.
All the Boys is the kind of movie I think I should despise since it deals with the overwrought feelings of teenagers, and yet it won me over in its opening minutes. The movie has a great sense of humor, especially through the eyes of Lara Jean, who, thanks to Sofia Alvarez’ terrific script, weaves together a worldview that’s both innocent and sardonic. Lara Jean loves romance novels, and yet she’s acutely aware of the vast gulf between those fantasies and her celibate reality. The movie also wisely weaves in the loss of Lara Jean’s mother as a way to show that Lara Jean is afraid to get close to people, so it’s easier to put together fantasies (like the unsent letters that are addressed to the crushes) rather than take a risk and find something real.
The movie finds a remarkable balance between the emotions of young love while never getting caught up in angst. The characters’ emotions are never cheapened or dismissed, but the film also has a great sense of humor about the outsized circumstances, and it lets viewers like me who long left high school behind revel in Lara Jean’s drama without having to relive the pain ourselves. We can recognize and commiserate, but we’re more like parents (cool, John Corbett-like parents, who plays Lara Jean’s father) rather than classmates. It’s a necessary distance that allows us to have fun with outsized moments like Lara Jean choosing to jump out her open window rather than face Josh after he’s received her crush letter.
But the film does have a very tender heart beneath its comedy, and that’s thanks to the excellent chemistry between Condor and Centineo. Both young actors show that they’re talents to watch as they each have a strong read on their characters and having to slowly open up to the other person. What starts out as a bit of a contrived premise—the fake relationship to make other people jealous—becomes a real connection as Lara Jean talks about her late mother and Peter opens up about his father leaving his family to go start a new one. These are real traumas that make Lara Jean and Peter more than self-obsessed teens with relationship drama and turns them into real people that we’re rooting for.
On the surface, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before seemed like it wouldn’t be my jam, but it charmed me immediately and didn’t let go. It’s a smart, funny, sweet, winning movie, and I was constantly amazed by how much I enjoyed it. Although it does start to lose a little steam near the end, the story heads in unexpected and worthwhile directions that make it a rich, YA romance. It’s a movie that eagerly cites Sixteen Candles and then does John Hughes one better with thoughtful characters, racial sensitivity, and heartwarming comedy.