Awash In The Stream: To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before (Netflix, 2018)

As steaming services play a bigger and bigger role in the film and television industry, a lot of attention is going to their original content–but mainly streaming television shows. What about streaming movies? What hidden gems or washed up flops are hiding under the “___ Original” tab? Lets see what is awash in the stream.

 

To All The Boys I Loved Before (2018)

Netflix

Director: Susan Johnson

Writers: Sofia Alvarez. Based on a book by Jenny Han

 

      To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before is a teen romantic comedy in the John Hughes mode, suburban teenagers discovering themselves and falling in love while navigating a complicated social hierarchy. Most post-John Hughes high school comedies have a tendency to go big, manufacturing conflict out of melodrama and rigid social rules, but To All The Boys I Loved Before largely avoids this, side-stepping concerns about ‘popularity’ and instead focusing on Lara Jean’s dating life (or lack thereof). It’s a film about people navigating real emotions, not archetypes navigating a contrived social kingdom.

      The film begins with a fantasy sequence, Lara Jean (Lana Condor) imagining herself as a romance novel heroine in the Field of Desire, about to kiss Josh (Israel Broussard). Josh is her next door neighbor, first crush, and is dating Lara Jean’s college-bound sister, Margot (Janel Parrish). Lara Jean keeps a box of unsent love letters in her closet, each one a paean to an object of affection, some as fleeting as a boy from camp she never saw again, and Peter Kavinsky, who she had kissed in a 7th grade game of Spin the Bottle, as well as, of course, Josh. Josh comes over a family dinner before Margot leaves for college in Scotland, and after revealing he had purchased a plane ticket to see her for Thanksgiving she breaks up with him. Afterwards, Margot confesses to Lara Jean that she still loves Josh, but doesn’t think a long-distance relationship in college will work. Lara Jean is still upset to see Margot break Josh’s heart.  There is no word on if Josh was able to get a refund for the plane ticket.

      Margot heads to Scotland, while Lara Jean starts her junior year and younger sister Catherine, nicknamed Kitty (Anna Catchcart) starts middle school. Lara Jean is not popular in high school, but this is framed as a function of her shyness and not some sort of rigid social caste system she is at the bottom of. The only person really out to get her is Gen (Emilija Baranac), a former friend from middle school that turned against Lara Jean in high school, for reasons that turn out to be more personal than mere popularity. Lara Jean’s only friend is Chris (Madeleine Arthur) a wacky free spirit who seems to be friends with Lara Jean mainly to piss off Gen. Gen is dating Peter Kavinsky (Noah Centineo), the teenage dreamboat that has launched a thousand memes and conquered the Netflix Twitter account.

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      After a Saturday night spent watching a Golden Girls marathon, Kitty decides to jumpstart Lara Jean’s social life by mailing off all of the hidden love letters. Lara Jean realizes what has happened when Peter gives her a “I’m flattered, but no” speech, then sees Josh approaching, letter  in hand. Panicking to avoid an awkward confrontation, Lara Jean kisses Peter, and runs off while Peter and Josh are confused. Gen and Peter have apparently broken up offscreen, so after Peter tracks her down again to make sure the “I’m flattered, but seriously no” speech sunk in, he finds out about the multiple letters that had spent  years in the back of Lara Jeans closet, and comes up with an idea: They pretend to date, to make Gen jealous enough to get back with him and give Lara Jean a reason to avoid a confrontation with Josh.

      A lot of John Hughes-influenced high school movies are drenched in irony, and lapse into a sort of quasi-fantasy, imaganing high school as young people, free of jobs or real responsibility jockeying for social capital. “Popularity” isn’t the function of actually being well-liked, but a shorthand for being flush with elusive and ill-defined social capital. Most “popular” cliques are 5 or so people, that are unrelentingly mean to everybody else. They are not popular because they are liked, but because they instill fear in the lower ranks of the less popular. High school becomes a kingdom, to be conquered and ruled. Some good films have arisen out of this template–one that comes to mind is Mean Girls, which made the “high school as kingdom to be conquered” conceit explicit–but also a lot of bad and forgettable films have come from getting too lost in genre conventions, and leaving behind anything resembling real life. The primary mode of high school as kingdom films are irony, sarcasm, and snark. However, To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before is very genuine. Here, the only ‘mean popular’ girl is Gen, but it is later revealed that her enmity isn’t enforcing a social caste system, but a grudge over Lara Jean kissing Peter in spin the bottle, in 7th grade, which is insane, but the specificity re-contextualizes her as something other than popular mean girl.

      Peter is initially introduced as a jerk jock, with shades of a James Dean-esque mix of aloof and vulnerable. But once he begins negotiating the terms of the fake relationship of Lara Jean, and it is apparent that the line between fake and real will be blurring, he starts to show not just sensitivity, but responsibility and emotional intelligence. He is genuinely interested in Lara Jean from the start of the fake relationship, instead of simply using her as a pawn. During the requisite wild teen party, he drinks kombucha instead of beer because he’s driving. It’s vaguely hinted that, despite dating Gen for at least two years, he’s still a virgin. The swerve on Peter,  a sensitive bad boy that turns out to be a solid dude that is about as bad as fresh milk, is emblematic of To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before, a film about misunderstanding and complicated dating schemes that is largely about people having honest and forthright conversations about their feelings.

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      The latter half of the film is in a sense almost a deconstruction of the first half, tossing aside where you would expect the plot to go and becoming something less high-concept but more emotionally honest. Instead of wacky hijinx trying to sell the fake relationship, Peter and Lara Jean genuinely enjoy spending time around each other. Lara Jean admits she finds the prospect of taking a risk on a real date intimidating, and prefers the fantasies offered up in the romance novels that she reads. However, the context of a “fake” relationship frees her to open to up to Peter, becoming emotionally intimate, even while sticking to their agreed “no kissing” rule. Peter in turn is less and less interested in getting back together with his ex.

      Josh, who seems to be initially posited as the main love interest, ends up being fairly marginal. Lara Jean successfully evades him for about the half the movie, until she realizes that she is developing real feelings for Peter. She tells Josh about the letters that were never meant to be sent and the fake relationship, off-screen and asks for his advice. At this point, the fake relationship, manipulation, love triangle high concept plotting is essentially abandoned, and the main conflict is just two teenagers working through their feelings for each other. When Margo, visiting home for Christmas, finds out about the love letter that went to Josh, Lara Jean swears that it was an idle crush and she would never hit on her sisters ex-boyfriend–and that’s pretty much it. She ends up having a similar conversation with Josh, where she says the feelings she wrote about in the letter were real–when she wrote them, years ago. They have since faded and she realizes that it was just a childhood crush, not real love.

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      While the film indulges in an happy ending, a crane shot swooping into the air as the happy couple walk off into the sunset, the main themes of the film are that a happy teenage romance isn’t the end of the world. Lara Jean learns that real romance is messier and riskier than romance novels, but ultimately more rewarding. At the same time, the specter of time and the impermanence of emotions and youth looms over the film. There’s Margo breaking up with Josh at the start of the film–a decision that leaves both heartbroken at first, but they ultimately bounce back. Margo indulges in a college lifestyle in Scotland, bar-hopping with friends, while Josh comes to realize that, as much as it initially hurt for Margo to breakup with him, he understands why she did and that it was the right decision. Every crush that spurred Lara Jean to write a love letter–an all-consuming, obsessive passion, that had to come out in the form of embarrassingly overwrought prose or else burn her up inside–had long since faded away by the time the letters are mailed. The overlapping love triangles that cause the plot of the film are resolved not through grand gestures of undying love, but characters slowly realizing that are happier with each other than with other potential partners and feelings fading over time. Decisions and emotions that feel like the end of the world disappear, and in retrospect can seem even trivial–like real high school; It’s not a contrived kingdom of teenagers scrambling over one another to be most admired, but young people figuring out their first romances and navigating feelings that they haven’t felt before.

      To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before manages to avoid falling into high school movie cliches, while still clearly being of the genre instead of attacking it. Lana Candor delivers a performance that walks a fine line between being charming enough to set the tone of the film, but not so charming that it defies belief that Lara Jean has such few friends. The lack of social life weighs on Lara Jean, but at the same time she enjoys watching 16 Candles (commenting on the racist Long Duk Dong character) at home more than going to a party. The film manages the feat of taking the central romance seriously, and investing it real stakes, while also being honest about how in the long term a teenage romance isn’t as life-defining as it seems.

 

Hidden Gem or Washed Up Flop? Hidden Gem