Why are adults so drawn to teen romances? Why are we so eager to revisit that old hellscape — study halls and lockers and gym? Possibly we miss having feelings at that level, that cortex-building intensity. Or maybe we remember how our brains were shaped by John Hughes and Nora Ephron, and we want that kind of synaptic intervention again.
The landscape of other movies is certainly painted into Jenny Han’s trio of books about high-schooler Lara Jean Covey (Lana Condor) and her love story with the superpopular Peter Kavinsky (Noah Centineo). As part of their friendship-turned-courtship, the two show each other films, many shot before they were born. These movies provide them with the basic vocabulary of their relationship: In the Netflix movie adaptations, when one of them manages to recreate a classic scene — maybe Peter holds a radio over his head à la Lloyd Dobler in Say Anything, or Lara Jean plans a date inspired by the The Big Lebowski — we understand that they are making a top romantic gesture.
Of course, Lara Jean and Peter are also in conversation with their own cinematic history. In the 2018 film, the delicious To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before, they were the classic fake-couple-that-becomes-real; in last year’s oddly un-sweet sequel To All The Boys: P.S. I Still Love You, they were an established couple destabilized by Lara Jean’s flirtation with another boy. In fact, in the final movie in the trilogy, the cumbersomely titled To All the Boys: Always and Forever, the film has to keep showing us moments from the first installment, when Condor and Centineo’s chemistry was at its peak. Vulture’s Alison Willmore pointed out in her review that in P.S. I Still Love You, third-point-on-the-triangle John Ambrose was in many ways the better partner for Lara Jean — when John Ambrose drew our attention to Kavinsky’s king-of-the-lacrosse-bros entitlement, it dimmed Peter’s jock lure. Centineo also wasn’t in top form during P.S., so his forced grins legitimized Lara Jean’s suspicion that Peter was going through the motions. She chose him anyway.
After the sour diversion of P.S. I Love You, Always and Forever returns to the brio of the first film. Condor and Centineo strike sparks again, and this time director Michael Fimognari and screenwriter Katie Lovejoy take ample space to add physical comedy grace notes and — crucial in a romantic comedy — jokes. “We burn low and slow,” Lara Jean explains brightly to a friend trying to prod the couple toward sex. “We’re like brisket.” Lara Jean and Peter are now seniors, and while they’re past the John Ambrose crisis, they know their relationship is stampeding toward a cliff called graduation. All around them, their friends and family also race forward: Lara Jean’s dad (John Corbett) remarries, her younger sister Kitty (Anna Cathcart) discovers boys while on a family trip to Korea, schoolmates dive exultantly toward college. But Lara Jean and Peter have found their bliss together, so change is terrifying. (This fear seems to be the tension that the filmmaking team can get behind, as opposed to the John Ambrose thing, which asked questions the movies weren’t prepared to answer.)
Much of the movie is whipped cream. The Covey family goes to Korea, and it’s gorgeous; everyone goes to prom, and it’s gorgeous; there’s a backyard wedding, and it’s gorgeous. The trouble starts when Lara Jean doesn’t get into Stanford University. Peter — white, a lacrosse player, avowedly unacademic — has gotten in early, and while this movie may be full of cupcake colors and cursive typefaces, in this way, it’s bitterly realistic. At first, Lara Jean plans to go to Berkeley, so they can still be within driving distance of each other, but then a class trip to New York exposes her to NYU, and her fidelity begins to waver. It was at this point that I began to yell at the screen. “Visit Berkeley!” I pleaded, “It’s got a pretty campus too!” But Lara Jean discovers that NYU has a literature program (so does Berkeley) and that NYU students have parties (Berkeley is known for its parties).
Always and Forever seems to make sure that no one crowds Lara Jean’s decision, though Dad Corbett’s line, “You can’t save this relationship by not growing” should be studied in parenting manuals. But there’s a sort of coercion in the screenplay all the same. NYU is presented as a suitor, Lara Jean as someone who has fallen head over heels. And in a romance, love must not be denied, right? The movie — not to mention countless college advisors and loan brochures — tell 17-year-olds that this is an appropriate way to think about university. Don’t think of college as an educational institution that charges money, they say. Instead, think of school as a love-object. Once that connection has been forged, only a monster, only a Montague would stand in your way.
For what it’s worth, I hate that I am not simply cheering on Always and Forever, which is handsomely made and beautifully acted. Lana Condor’s comic timing should be getting its own paragraph, dammit, not my shrill complaints about our dysfunctional messaging around higher education. But the film’s own attention to the way romantic comedies operate teaches us to watch it with our guard up. The movie has thought carefully about how to solve the problems that other films have created: It’s sex positive without being weird about it; it models great parenting, with an emphasis on respect for young people’s autonomy; it neither ignores Lara Jean’s Korean heritage nor exoticizes it. That’s because the people who made this movie knew that romantic movies tend to slip under our defenses, leaving behind destructive mindsets. They’ve been fastidious in ensuring that Peter Kavinsky isn’t a creeper like Edward from Twilight, or an emotional vampire like Troy from Reality Bites, or a dishonest weenus like Blane from Pretty in Pink. That’s because it does actually matter who you turn into a romantic hero. Please don’t do it to NYU.
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