We all know the classic high school rom-com formula: Unpopular Girl likes Popular Boy. Unexpected circumstances bring them together. Unpopular girl comes out of her shell. Romance ensues, miscommunication abounds but, in the end, everything works out for the best.
It is a cute, relatively uncomplicated premise, and the Netflix film “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” (2018), which is based on Jenny Han’s novel of the same name, follows it neatly. The film is best suited for a 14-year-old girl; it is entertaining and heartwarming, but does not relay any groundbreaking themes or messages. It has its sensitive, gentle moments of teenage romance, yet it fails to deviate too much from its classic high school premise, making it feel a bit trite and ultimately somewhat forgettable. However, its inclusion of an Asian-American star is an important addition to a genre that generally casts white lead actors. Han and the producers deserve the praise they’ve garnered for standing by the novel’s Asian-American protagonist; the film had previously been trapped in development hell as other production companies resisted casting an Asian-American actress in the lead role.
“To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” follows quiet, shy Korean-American high school junior Lara Jean Covey (Lana Condor) and the drama that erupts after five of her secret, personal love letters are ‘accidentally’ — Lara’s little sister sent them secretly — mailed to her past crushes. The catastrophe, through some tenuous circumstances, eventually leads Lara Jean to begin a fake relationship with one of the recipients, popular jock Peter Kavinsky (Noah Centineo), so that he can make his ex-girlfriend and Lara Jean’s former best friend, Gen (Emilija Baranac), jealous. Predictably, Lara Jean develops feelings for Peter as she gets to know him, and she must also deal with Gen’s meddling and the fallout from her other crushes receiving her letters, especially her older sister’s ex-boyfriend.
The story depicts just about every high school stock character you might think of. Lara Jean is the antisocial bookworm who is too afraid to attend high school parties; Peter is the jock who secretly has real emotions; Gen is the snooty popular girl whose blatant bullying of Lara Jean borders on laughably unrealistic; Lara Jean’s best friend Chris is the artsy, outside-the-mainstream sidekick; and Lucas, another recipient of Lara Jean’s letter, is the stylish gay confidant. This reliance on archetypal high school stereotypes makes it difficult for the characters to feel relatable or, frankly, particularly interesting.
Lara Jean’s character at least has some dimensionality. Her main point of inner conflict is that she is afraid of putting herself out there and finding rejection, especially due to the death of her mother. Peter is able to connect with her about this loss (his father left his family), making their relationship feel tantalizingly real with each conversation the two share.
“To All the Boys” is full of sweet teenage moments that would make the middle school girl in any of us squeal. However, it can be hard not to roll our eyes as characters argue about the most insignificant problems. Peter is upset that Lara Jean didn’t sit with him on the bus. Gen fumes about Lara Jean having kissed Peter in the seventh grade. Lara Jean is mad that Peter gave her favorite scrunchie to Gen. After so many dramatic fights about such superficial and easily resolved issues, it becomes clear that “To All the Boys” leans a bit too heavily on that alluring yet frustrating rom-com miscommunication to lengthen the conflict and drag the plot out. Lara Jean will conveniently cut Peter off before he has time to explain himself, Peter will stomp off and the tension between the two will continue.
There is a reason why the film’s formula is so effective. It’s exciting to watch two characters orbit around each other, moving ever so gradually towards a happy ending. The moments that Lara Jean and Peter share are, put simply, very sweet, and watching Lara Jean become more fearless throughout the movie is endearing. “To All the Boys” is a good choice for those in the mood for an uncomplicated, low-stakes rom-com, and it makes important strides for representation for Asian-Americans. However, because it takes so few narrative risks and does not attempt anything particularly groundbreaking, it succeeds in being a decent film, but fails to truly stand out.