Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
TO ALL THE BOYS I’VE LOVED BEFORE
CAN’T BUY ME LOVE. SHE’S ALL THAT. 10 THINGS I HATE ABOUT YOU. WHILE YOU WERE SLEEPING. THE PROPOSAL. These are the classics filmmakers aim for when making films about fake relationships that – what, what, WHAT?! – somehow turn real. This romantic comedy subgenre is much beloved and often imitated, but not many achieve similar heights. Remember LEAP YEAR, WHAT HAPPENS IN VEGAS, THE WEDDING DATE, and JUST GO WITH IT? Those, uh, to borrow the title of another non-starter for my sentiment here, suffered a FAILURE TO LAUNCH.
However, director Susan Johnson’s TO ALL THE BOYS I’VE LOVED BEFORE shows the audience within the first few minutes why it belongs in the upper echelon. With lots of heart, witty humor, one adorable heroine, and a great soundtrack to boot, there’s much to love. Totally unexpected in the right ways, wildly progressive and subversively sweet in others, this cinematic adaptation of Jenny Han’s best-selling novel is here to resuscitate the subgenre.
Seattle-dwelling high school junior Lara Jean Covey (Lana Condor) yearns for a great romance, but has only ever experienced a small handful of secret crushes. She keeps her emotions at bay by writing love letters to her unwitting paramours, stuffing them away in a turquoise silk-wrapped box hidden in the deep recesses of her closet. Making her life miserable is the fact that one of those love letters is addressed to her older sister Margot’s (Janel Parrish) long-time boyfriend Josh Sanderson (Israel Broussard, who gives off major Rami Malek vibes). But when Margot breaks up with Josh, and precocious, sneaky younger sister Kitty (Anna Cathcart) takes it upon herself to mail Lara Jean’s secret stash, Lara Jean’s world turns upside down. Seeing that she’s in a pickle, senior Peter Kavinsky (Noah Centineo) comes up with a brilliant scheme: date each other. For him, this provides the opportunity to get back at his ex-flame Genevieve (Emilija Baranac, who’s a Jodi Lyn O’Keefe-esque mean girl), and for her, this provides a shield from Josh. Havoc and hilarity ensue.
Sofia Alvarez’s screenplay has a lot of wit, levity, and honesty to it – crucial elements for success in this subgenre. Lara Jean’s repartee with Peter is strong, particularly showcased in the scene where they draw up their contract, referencing SIXTEEN CANDLES and FIGHT CLUB almost in the same breath. It hits emotional beats – specifically those dealing with the death of Lara Jean’s mom – with heartfelt sincerity.
Blending the protagonist’s fantastical asides with her reality, and making it all appear coherent, is a feat. The narrative has multiple elements that break the linear structure – things like flashbacks to her youthful flings, the crushes invading her space in her mind and a little bit of voice-over. That said, they aren’t jarring and don’t break up the momentum. The passage of time is handled cleverly, demarcated on hallway banners. Texts are integrated by appearing at the top of the screen, setting the look apart from most teen flicks. Plus, it’s well-paced and without any down time.
The escalating zany situations are made all the more endearing thanks to the charismatic performances of the ensemble. Condor is an effervescent, radiant treasure and this is star-making material she delivers on. She’s got an undeniable magnetism and chemistry with all her co-stars. She can handle the hijinks-laden pratfalls just as adeptly as she can the more heartfelt, genuinely emotional scenes she shares with John Corbett, who plays her utterly sweet, embarrassingly sex-positive gynecologist father. Centineo, who brilliantly channels Mark Ruffalo adorableness in spades, delivers a home run. He’s dashing, funny and vulnerable. Madeline Arthur (Amanda Seyfried’s doppelganger), is vibrant and hilarious as Lara Jean’s bestie Chris.
Like any good romcom, there are a few things missing. I found myself craving a classic “falling in love” montage. All along the way, we catch glimmers of the flame Lara Jean and Peter are igniting. Only it could use a little more oomph in the second act – like a snappily-edited, warmly-scored sequence that shows the couple’s day-to-day romance blooming. What’s there is evident what’s happening, but we’re left yearning to be romanced, something the actors could assuredly deliver if the material was there. The plot also leaves audiences dangling, questioning one crucial detail involving its third act cyber-bullying thread. While there’s a good message to younger girls injected into that conflict, there’s no resolution.
When all’s said and done, any mistakes are smoothed over by the charm and energy of this lovely calamity.
TO ALL THE BOYS I’VE LOVED BEFORE is on Netflix starting on August 17.