Directed by Susan Johnson
Starring Lana Condor, Noah Centineo
Running Time 1 Hr., 39 Mins., PG-13
My Rating: B+
Sometimes, Lara Jean has a crush so intense that it becomes hard to see straight. It isn’t the aasking-out of a possible paramour that will absolve her from her spinning head, though: she doesn’t date. Grabbing a fussily decorated card, a new pen, and an envelope is what induces a catharsis. In a fever, Lara Jean (Lana Condor) will write a love letter to her latest imagined flame. Then, she’ll unceremoniously stick the note in a decorative box kept hidden in her closet. It will never be sent. She’s done this for years.
The subjects are not meant to read these passionate notes. And that’s precisely the point: Because Lara Jean would rather daydream about romance then actualize one, this is the only way she can get over all-consuming fixation without any real-life consequences dirtying the reverie.
Then something nightmarish happens. One day, during gym class, one of the boys Lara Jean has written to, the well-liked Peter (Noah Centineo), approaches her while she’s running laps. What comes out of his mouth embarrasses her so much that she faints. “I appreciate it, but it’s never going to happen,” says Peter, his brow furrowed. Lara Jean looks down. He’s holding one of her secret letters.
This particular one was written in middle school, around the time the latter and our heroine kissed at a party. Later that day, another one of the fantasized-about inamoratos, Lucas (Trezzo Mahoro), gently confronts her. “You know I’m gay, right?” he asks.
Upon returning home, Lara Jean sprints up to her room in an understandable panic. As she feared, the box is gone; apparently, it got mixed up with some Goodwill bundles. “No …. no,” Lara Jean frets.
In To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, Lara Jean both has to contend with the dramas which arise because of the letters, and because of a harebrained scheme. Shortly after the fainting debacle, which leads to an impromptu kiss as a way to save face as another love-letter recipient (Israel Broussard) approaches, Peter proposes that he, with Lara Jean’s help, enact a long-practiced rom-com trope: feign a relationship. The goal: help him win back his vile ex-girlfriend, Gen (Emilija Baranac).
Lara Jean agrees to the sure-to-fail plan, knowing that it will make for a sort-of-fair tit-for-tat trade-off to the aforementioned kiss. Plus, it will better enable her to avoid further confrontation with other once-imaginary boyfriends. But this comes with much one-on-one time between Peter and Lara Jean, which, inevitably, will rid their sham of a romance of its artifice.
To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, a recent, Netflix-distributed romantic comedy, is a pleasure. The plot wouldn’t be out of place in a John Hughes movie, but the feature, fortunately, is so smart that it knows it. The self-awareness peaks when Lara Jean convinces the Fight Club-obsessed Peter to watch one of her favorite movies, Sixteen Candles, and assures him that she still loves it even though it’s exceedingly dated. Self-cognizance is also supported by the structuring. Though the film possesses more than a few rom-com clichés, it spends far more time allotting scenes to showcase interpersonal relationships than it does ones that muck up an increasingly complicated plot.
Centineo is a revelation: more charming than Blane McDonough, more considerate than Jake Ryan. Even better is Condor, who is warm, shrewd, and memorable — among the most lovable of the teen heroines caught in romantic crossfires. I wouldn’t mind spending more time with her and her page-bound toy boys. Since the Jenny Han novel on which the movie is based comes with two sequels, maybe such a desire isn’t a pipedream.