Identity

Seeing Myself in Lara Jean Was About More than Representation

"To All the Boys I've Loved Before" is a love letter to Asian girls precisely because it doesn't make its casting a political point, or even a plot point.
August 29, 2018, 2:03pm
Photos courtesy of Netflix

There are many reasons to love To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before, which I fully admit to having watched twice, and will probably watch at least twice again before the month is through. There’s the reliably pleasing plot of the fake relationship between Lara Jean Covey and Peter Kavinsky—it’s all business until someone catches feelings!—done with a particular tenderness in this incarnation; or maybe the simultaneously sweet and steamy chemistry between the movie’s leads, the wonderfully expressive Lana Condor and up-and-coming heartthrob Noah Centineo, the man who launched a thousand groupchats with his husky voice, good manners, and mysterious scar. (Really, how’d he get that one?) But I was surprised by what I loved most about To All The Boys: its specificity.

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There’s another love story in TATBILB, or, there was for me: a love letter to my hometown of Portland, Oregon, where the film is set. The Portland setting was most likely just a production decision: The movie is based on a novel by Jenny Han set in her home state of Virginia, but Vancouver B.C., where much of the film’s production took place, is a Netflix and film-industry favorite, and shots of the relatively nearby Portland skyline and Mt. Hood, the site of the movie’s climactic high school ski trip, establish my hometown as the story’s setting. Deliberate or not, the TATBILB crew embraced its Pacific Northwest setting, filling the story with the kind of perfect, spot-on details that felt immediately recognizable to a PacNW kid like me.

Evocative scenery aside, plenty of the Northwest makes it into the film. Peter Kavinsky, our heroine’s love interest and “King of the Cafeteria," is on the lacrosse team, which makes sense, even translated from Virginia to Oregon—my high school had a lacrosse team, and it was always the LAX bros who occupied the top of the social hierarchy, taking the hallowed position that might have been traditionally held by the football team. (Though, for a LAX bro, Peter’s a remarkably sensitive and perceptive guy.) Meanwhile, Lara Jean, incredibly styled throughout the film, wears over-the-knee socks, a classic PacNW/NorCal Asian girl look, where it actually gets chilly enough to require them. Lara Jean and her sisters drink Yakult—admittedly a kind of universal Asian thing—which, in a pivotal moment, Peter reveals he drove to the other side of town to procure; in Portland, the city’s Asian population is largely situated in the suburbs, which means Peter probably went all the way out to the grocery stores and malls past SE 82nd Avenue or to—gasp!— Beaverton to find an H-Mart. (“He loves her!” I wailed at the scene.) Just the mere mention of a ski trip brought back memories of all the times I enviously listened to my peers recount what went on up at the mountain. Even the film’s soundtrack, an eclectic mix spanning Lauv, Anna of the North, Blood Orange, and Tears for Fears, feels recognizably indie and reminiscent of West Coast bands like the Blow, which I grew up listening to.

All of this means that—without anyone’s intention, which feels even more gratifying—TATBILB is also a love letter to the kind of teenage years I wish I’d had, or at least been able to experience outside of my own fantasy world.

A few months ago, I returned to Portland for a week to hang out with my parents and get some writing done, and on my first day back, my mom tasked me with cleaning out my room. My parents still live in the house I grew up in, so there were almost two decades of things to go through: old sketchbooks and notebooks and folders full of practice tests for AP exams I took nearly 10 years ago. I sat on the floor, picked up a pile of printed matter, and immediately spent the next two hours going through my high school yearbooks, poring over every inscription and flipping through class photos.

I’m not nostalgic for high school, exactly. I don’t often think about it. I consider college the real site of my identity formation; the place where I came to encounter the beginning of who I want to become. But there, indelibly, in the pages of an old yearbook, were inscriptions in blue and purple gel pen: a litany of end-of-year inside jokes from my best friends, cheerful notes from classmates, and, in a taped-in insert, a letter from my first boyfriend—all of it celebrating a person I almost forgot I used to be. High school, as cringingly embarrassing as it is to recall now, was where I had my firsts—my first crush, my first kiss. Not to say it doesn’t happen again—it does, and thrillingly—but there’s nothing quite like your first romance. In the beginning of TATBILB, when Lara Jean tells Peter that their fake relationship can’t have kissing because she doesn’t want her firsts to all be fake… I felt that.

When a high school crush is realized, whatever that looks like in the moment: late night phone calls; notes left in lockers; AIM conversations that begin as soon as you get home from school— the whole world narrows to a perfect, exquisite point—your object of affection becomes suddenly spotlit and special and absolutely extraordinary—and then the world expands as you learn what it means to know another person and the possibilities of being with each other open unbelievably, ecstatically, like those paper flowers that, when placed in water, begin to bloom. I used to call my high school boyfriend every day. I don’t remember what we talked about, but I remember how it felt to talk to him, taking breathless little steps along the patterns of my bedroom carpet, my heart high in my chest from the thrill of being so close to someone else. (Remember that scene where Lara Jean, still unsure of the real emotions she’s having in their fake relationship, hesitantly teases Peter about calling her “bae” and, after a beat, he responds with a *kiss*? She sighs happily, her feelings launched into a place outside herself, and you can practically see the heart gifs dancing above her head. Yeah. That.)

At its core, it’s the sweetness of first love that TATBILB really does best. All its other details, like the Portland setting and the LAX bro and the Yakult and hell, even the Covey sisters being biracial—endeared the movie to me, the way it’s nice to be on the inside of an inside joke, but ultimately they aren’t the main thrust of the film (though they remain an intrinsic part of it). It is wildly delightful to me that Lara Jean and Peter are bumbling around my hometown, that I can even now conjure a sense memory of running laps at a Portland prep school in the fall. But what’s most captivating about TATBILB is the slow burn of real feelings that develop within the fake relationship Peter and Lara Jean have agreed to. We’re enthralled by Peter’s open heart, by his earnest support; we’re moved by Lara Jean’s slow realization that he cares about her—that dizzying, glorious opening of the world that happens when you allow another person in, and grow to trust them with your joys and your weaknesses.

A teen rom-com is supposed to be nostalgic: to make us long for all the boys we’ve loved before, too. Conjuring nostalgia is a tricky thing, though. Go too general, and it weakens the effect, like when a brand misunderstands a meme, but get too specific, and you lose your audience. To the latter point, it’s not unlike the kind of reasoning that leads studios to whitewash roles, thinking a white protagonist might be more relatable, symbols and cultural paraphernalia more universal.

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Author Jenny Han vetoed working with anyone who wanted to cast a white actress to play Lara Jean, and I’m grateful for it. What makes for the best art isn’t telling a story to appeal to everyone, but telling one story well—with heart, care, and attention to detail. Because TATBILB is so well done, so believable and so carefully made, this is where it succeeds—anyone who’s daydreamed about finding love will see themselves in it. It doesn’t rely on the specificity of its setting or its casting to make a political point, or even a plot point, but it’s precisely that intrinsic specificity which makes it a better story.

I don’t make seeing myself a requirement to love something, but I do value being seen. That the character of Lara Jean happens to provide a much-needed narrative for a generation of lovesick Asian girls—and prove to the film industry that a movie with an Asian lead can be a smash hit—is just an added perk.