I didn’t appreciate what a unicorn-like rarity a good, solid boy is in a teen comedy until To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before. “The male lead was a drip, but it doesn’t matter!” is a line I feel like I’ve subconsciously been telling myself since Pretty in Pink, or really any number of Brat Pack–era classics that our young romance-obsessed heroine Lara Jean (Lana Condor) would probably know by heart. When was the last time a boy in a teen movie was worth all the fuss that inevitably bubbles up around him? And isn’t that maybe just a commentary on what those boys actually stand for?
Teenage fantasy is To All the Boys’ vibranium, the inexhaustible resource that fuels all manner of cute hijinks. And yet, it has the nerve to go and deliver a romantic interest (two, if you’re feeling generous) that in every way lives up to the burning ball of emotion that is Lara Jean Covey. Chalk that up to the larger-than-life — but never not-human — direction of Susan Johnson, and the excellent casting of Condor and Noah Centineo as her fake-but-not-really-fake boyfriend Peter Kavinsky. Together, they are able to stare down the entire history of teen rom-coms they reference both implicitly and explicitly, and do it all justice and then some.
Lara Jean is the middle child in a trio of sisters, Korean-Americans with a dead mom and a well-meaning Caucasian gynecologist father (yikes!). Her older sister Margot (Janel Parrish), we are told by way of prologue, snatched Lara Jean’s crush Josh Sanderson (Israel Broussard) out from under her — but before leaving Portland for college in Scotland, Margot unceremoniously dumps him. As the school year begins and Lara Jean once again finds herself in a rut of social stagnancy, her younger sister, 11-year-old Kitty (Anna Cathcart) takes it upon herself to intervene, digging into her secret stash of unsent love letters, slapping stamps on them, and sending them off into the world. Lara Jean wakes up to a nightmare world where all her crushes — past and present — know her feelings, in florid detail. This includes Josh, but it also includes Peter, the jockish player she kissed once during a seventh-grade game of spin the bottle, and the recent ex of her former-best-friend-turned-mean-girl Genevieve (Emilija Baranac). In order to throw Josh, and the world, off the far more scandalous scent of her crush on her sister’s ex, she and Peter go in on a “fake relationship” — Peter to make Genevieve jealous, and Lara Jean as shelter until the whole love letter thing blows over.
There are five letters in total, and if there’s a flaw in To All the Boys, it’s one it shares with Jenny Han’s bestselling YA book: I would have liked to see the ramifications of all five outed crushes. We only meet a third one besides the two most pressing, Lucas (Trezzo Mahoro), who has since come out as gay and is an intermittent sounding board for all of Lara Jean’s woes. But it would be a fun teenage nightmare/fantasy for all five boys to come back into Lara Jean’s life as a kind of Greek chorus of adolescent emotions. Both the primary letter recipients are more or less wildest-dreams crushes for Lara Jean; wouldn’t it be interesting to see more variations on unrequited love, lopsided in all plausible directions? Romance, especially teen romance, is treated as such an aspirational pursuit in film, but for every love that cannot be, there’s one left in the dust, probably unconsciously.
But other than that, it’s hard to find much to dislike about Johnson’s sweet and savvy film, particularly Condor as its sparkling lead. In the film’s intro, she’s seen running toward Broussard in a grassy field, wearing a flowing red Ren-Faire gown; it’s hard to not see her spiritually running around in a red gown for the rest of the movie, perpetually on the brink of spilling her emotional guts. Like most movie characters, she’s wittier and quicker with a comeback than any actual teenager, but she’s also a fully human creation, never relegated to one mode, and by turns mortified and ecstatic and seductive and reflective. Her voice-over narration feels like the way a diary entry reads, hushed and uncertain and exhilarated. Condor is a ready-made star, and Centineo rises to meet her, the adoring, throaty lunk any introverted teen dreams of coming around and melting away her shyness. Theirs is a teenage romance I can believe in, despite its ridiculously convoluted circumstances. And when was the last time you believed in a teenage romance!?