Romantic comedies don’t get sequels all that often because the happy ending is, for so much of the genre, the point. You spend a whole movie teasing out the tension between people who should be together but aren’t, throwing obstacles and misunderstandings in their way, until finally, there’s nothing left to be overcome. There are only the grand gestures, the confessions of feelings, the passionate clinches — the sweet satisfaction of emotional resolution before the camera pulls back and up from the new couple kissing in the rain/an airport/their wedding. To keep going past that point is to get into what it means to carve out a functional day-to-day relationship and keep it going. And while that can be romantic, and it can be comedic, it doesn’t lend itself to the same sort of ebullient escapism as the getting together does. It’s generally been simpler, at the movies, to treat love like an accomplishment unto itself, and not just one element in the ongoing process of people trying to figure out what it means to be together. But that’s the territory into which P.S. I Still Love You, the Michael Fimognari–directed follow-up to Netflix’s 2018 phenom To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, boldly ventures.
I’ll admit to a complicated ambivalence to To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, which was adapted from the first book in a trilogy from YA writer Jenny Han, and which had unapologetically modest aims when it came to reclaiming a type of throwback teen romance. That movie, which was directed by Susan Johnson, didn’t update John Hughes so much as it gave John Hughes a scrub down and a cursory coat of paint. It put a half-Korean heroine at its center instead of Molly Ringwald — the prim on the outside, emotionally overwrought on the inside Lara Jean (Lana Condor). But it stopped short of interrogating its own desires about high-school social structures and desirability. Its main character may have been different, but the focus of its fantasy was still a sensitive white jock. It even made a point of showing Peter watching Sixteen Candles with Lara Jean and her younger sister Kitty (Anna Cathcart), and having the girls affirm that the dreamboat qualities of the Jake Ryan character make the “extremely racist” Long Duk Dong one worth enduring.
When P.S. I Still Love You begins, Lara Jean has landed her very own Jake Ryan — the hunky, improbably sweet Peter (Noah Centineo) — and has to contend with what it means to effectively be dating the prince of her teen social circle. Peter takes her out to the amusement park and to his favorite Italian restaurant. He buys her a necklace for Valentine’s Day, and apologizes profusely when practice makes him late to their planned meetup at a coffee shop. He doesn’t push for sex — even asks solicitously whether it feels like he’s rushing her. The same power dynamic that underlies the first film, of him having chosen her, informs the problems plaguing the budding relationship in this second one. They come, almost entirely, from Lara Jean’s insecurities — about Peter’s previous relationship to her former bestie Gen (Emilija Baranac), about his popularity, and about his loyalty to his teammates. She doesn’t actually have much in common with Peter beyond the chemistry that Condor and Centineo share.
And chemistry is nothing to sniff at, but P.S. I Still Love You does come awfully close to arguing itself out of its central romance when it introduces John Ambrose McClaren (Jordan Fisher), one of the other five crushes to whom Lara Jean wrote confessional notes that were never intended to be mailed. P.S. I Still Love You has a cast of supporting characters that’s pointedly less white than To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, and that includes John Ambrose, who when briefly glimpsed at the end of the first film was played by Jordan Burtchett. As played by Fisher, he’s dashing and piano-playing and has an easy rapport with Condor. When the two end up volunteering together at a retirement home lorded over by an advice-dealing Holland Taylor, they strike up a flirtation that’s helped along by the fact that Lara Jean never gets around to telling him she has a boyfriend.
One thing that both of these films is good at is getting inside the mind-set of a teenager for whom everything is new and to whom everything seems potentially world-ending. But the love triangle that Lara Jean helps create for herself doesn’t end up coming across as the kind of highly dramatized, contrived complication that rom-coms have been fueled by forever. It actually ends up unintentionally undercutting the relationship the film asks us to be invested in. “Sometimes I wish my boyfriend were a little more anonymous,” Lara Jean sighs at one point, as she watches Peter play flip cup with his friends at a party. And yet his social standing is also part of his appeal, and the film is so inured to the coup it represents for its heroine (who’s reminded by a friend that “You’re the one that dethroned Gen without ever trying”) that it never gets around to showing where these two characters connect. Lara Jean is shown to have a tendency to make herself miserable playing at being Peter’s girlfriend, always in her head overthinking everything — which, she admits, doesn’t happen when she’s with John Ambrose.
What can be said about where this all ends but that To All the Boys: Always and Forever, Lara Jean is tentatively slated to come out later this year? And that, ultimately, these films might get at something sometimes true about young love that they never intended, which is that the ideas that you form about who you should want can be difficult to shake. They can stick around for so long that you can end up making a whole movie about someone hurling herself at a relationship that doesn’t seem to make her happy. That she’s still sure it’s all she ever wanted may not be romantic, but it’s definitely real.