I’m going to start off with a bold confession, which is that the last rom-com I remember really loving (and I mean REALLY, REALLY, still-can-recite-all-the-words loving) is (500) Days of Summer. Had I watched that now rather than in 2009 when I was still down with internalized misogyny, well, perhaps I’d have a different opinion. While that film and many others that I kind of lump along with it (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Garden State) are complex, there’s no denying that the women are manic pixie dream girls to the maximum.
Still, as an unattractive, undesirable middle/high schooler, I couldn’t help but relate to the characters, even if the person I had to relate to was the pining male protagonist who just couldn’t ultimately win his love interest over. I couldn’t even dream of watching a movie where it’s a girl who spends many of her formative years dreaming about men who barely knew she existed. While that isn’t completely what goes down in To All the Boys I’ve Ever Loved Before, Lara Jean sure convinces herself she’s unworthy of love years before she’s old enough to fully understand it. Seeing a protagonist like this who doesn’t go through some sort of dramatic make-over or take a crash course in ‘coolness’ almost feels revolutionary in the genre. In fact, she doesn’t have to change at all to get the love she deserves — it just happens to her (well, under interesting circumstances). If I had this rom-com in my life when I was 15, perhaps I wouldn’t have felt so completely hopeless after all. No one is hopeless; high school just makes us feel hopeless. With this film, high school girls might feel seen instead. That’s a lovely change of pace.
Lara Jean, brilliantly played by Lana Condor, is a bookish, near-friendless junior in high school who personifies the term ‘hopeless romantic’ to the umpteenth degree. We first get to know her as she fantasizes about her sister’s boyfriend, Josh, who doubles as her (former?) best friend. We see her penning a letter to him that’s filled with passion and desire, but of course, she’s not sending it out. She has a box full of five of these stampless confessions that she tucks away in a blue box that belonged to her late mother. After quite the snafu, however, she finds out that her letters have somehow been sent out and that five guys are now roaming the earth thinking about her undying love for them without understanding that it’s more of an exercise for her than a heroic pass.
In order to get the Josh situation under control, she plants a surprise smooch on Peter (Noah Centineo) in the middle of the P.E. track, which sparks a plan to leverage the incident to save her from an awkward conversation and make his ex-girlfriend (and Lara Jean’s mean old best friend), Sam, jealous of their newfound love. There aren’t really any crazy twists here: Sam is mean so she makes shit up to rock the boat and ruin their relationship, it begins as a plan with a contract (!) and eventually turns into a full-blown romance, and Laura Jean gets her happily-ever-after when she tells her sister everything, sits down with Peter to admit the cold hard truth about her off-limits feelings for him, and ends up making out with Josh on the lacrosse field. Goals!!!
What’s really revolutionary about the film is the dignity and sharpness with which it’s told. Like Eighth Grade, it feels like a story finally worthy of its audience. Kids are smart, especially teenage girls, and watching over-the-top garbage television isn’t cutting it anymore. People get their fix of stupidity online (trust me, I partake in producing it), so we’re demanding more of our formal entertainment. None of the one-liners in this film were corny or cringe-worthy, and the whole thing felt so incredibly current without overdoing it. We don’t see phones all that much, we do see cracks about Bon Iver and kombucha, shoes that are “vintage… I got them on Etsy?!”, and an increasingly woke generation who is perfectly capable of understanding when they’re being condescended. We see this in Laura Jean’s sister, Kitty (Anna Cathcart), especially — she literally calls her dad “doctor MAN” when he tries to med-splain periods to her (and, honestly, he’s pretty woke himself!!).
Of course, it has its faults, which mainly fall into casting (for me). Here we have an Asian-American actress (yay!) with… four out of five white male crushes. While this isn’t usual, especially out there in Oregon (I would imagine), it would’ve been nice to see some more diversity rather than continue playing into the woman-of-color-pines-for-hot-white-man thing, but it’s still a step.
While the movie is certainly centered around romance, the importance of family and self-acceptance aren’t thrown to the wayside. There’s so much here that makes the story able to touch anyone’s heart: loss, belonging, inevitable changes, maturing, regrets, and growth. It’s not perfect, it’s not super stimulating, I wish a lot of the other characters were given more of an arc, but it’s a damn good rom-com for such a short run-time and a front-runner in the pack of bold new movies that seem to be yelling, “Teenage girls, we see you —we finally actually see you.”