'To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before' Is a Refreshingly Real Teen Rom-Com
Netflix's new film makes a lot of old tropes seem new again.
Photo by Overbrook Entertainment
The creators of Crazy Rich Asians may have rejected a Netflix deal in favor of getting their movie on the big screen, but the streaming service has continued to put out shows and movies with diverse casts. The latest is the film To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, a teen romantic comedy that follows the story of Lara Jean Covey (Lana Condor), a shy high-schooler who has to deal with the fallout after five letters she penned to her past crushes as private diary entries get delivered to the people they were addressed to. Through a series of traditional teen-movie contrivances, Lara Jean ends up “fake dating” the school’s popular boy, Peter Kavinsky (Noah Centineo). The rest documents her struggles as the emotional boundaries between fake dating and real dating become blurred.
Lara Jean is half-Asian, making her a rarity in the generally lily-white world of rom-coms. But the film isn't explicitly about that, though it is one its greatest strengths. Mostly, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before focuses on hitting the traditional marks of teen dramadies—an underdog protagonist, a vindictive popular girl, a “sex scandal.” What sets it apart is its realistic portrayal of what it means to choose to be vulnerable with someone for the first time in your life.
As you can probably guess, the “fake” relationship is complicated as Lara Jean gradually falls for Peter. But both parties also come to understand that a successful relationship is a form of negotiation, and that part of that negotiation—and part of trust and intimacy in general—is vulnerability. This starts when they draw up a physical contract where they’re forced to communicate their likes and dislikes upfront—Lara Jean writes “no kissing” and Peter counters with “must attend all of my parties with me.” By the middle of the film, they have a candid conversation about each of their estranged parents where they share things they’ve never told anyone.
Lara Jean is the type of protagonist rarely seen in teen films, and one I wish would appear more often. She stands up for herself, but she is predominantly a quiet person who lives in her head—she tells people she sees herself as invisible, she brings romance novels with her on a ski trip, she gets Peter to watch Sixteen Candles with her (it’s in their contract; in exchange, she has to watch Fight Club). This is a fairly on-the-nose reference: Lara Jean is intensely similar to Molly Ringwald’s shy Samantha, who feels forgotten and who similarly struggles when an intimate piece of her own writing reaches an unintended recipient.
But while classic teen films like Sixteen Candles established the now-eternal high school tropes—the nerds, the jocks, the theater geeks, the “plastics”—To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before triumphantly divorces them from the stereotypical ethnicities and sexual orientations that usually come attached to them. Lara Jean’s father is white and her late mother is Asian, but she isn't shy and bookish because of her race. Just like Samantha in Sixteen Candles happened to be white, Lara Jean just happens to be half-Asian. Being half-Asian is an important part of her identity—when Peter drives her to school, she offers him a Yakult, and in another scene her father struggles to make Korean food like her mother did—but it’s not all of her identity.
This divorce from stereotypes extends beyond the lead. One of Lara Jane’s old crushes is a gay African American guy who ends up becoming one of her good friends. Though he expresses his desire not to be “outed,” his orientation is an open secret on campus, and the film never exoticizes him or stereotypes him. And Lara Jean’s single father is not a dysfunctional wreck, nor does he try to gatekeep his daughters’ sexuality—he gives one of the best, most realistic movie dad “sex talks” I’ve seen, in which he tells her both that he feels uncomfortable about her having sex, but also offers 16-year-old Lara Jean condoms before her ski trip because abstinence education isn't adequate protection.
It’s worth noting that like other recent films with multiracial leads targeted at young people—the Amandla Stenberg–starring Everything, Everything, The Darkest Minds, and the forthcoming The Hate U Give—All the Boys I’ve Loved Before was based on a young adult book. It’s in YA literature where multiracial characters who are more than their ethnicities are most often appearing these days, and it's great to see these stories get adapted into films. That's true even though the book’s author, Jenny Han, had to deal with Hollywood execs trying to whitewash her characters.
Thankfully these execs did not rob the film of what makes it special. All the Boys I’ve Loved Before deftly highlights high school experiences that range from the fear of driving for the first time to the intimacy of a first make-out by making space for diversity without defining anyone by it. In All the Boys I’ve Loved we get to see people simply being people.
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