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The Bold Dreaminess of To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before

How a frothy new Netflix movie reinvigorates the high-school rom-com genre

Masha Weisberg / Netflix

I started to notice the Peter Kavinsky tweets on Saturday morning, at first as a trickle, and then as a flood. This happens from time to time: The Internet collectively swoons over a fictional character, in this case a high-school jock with a heart of gold and a dreamy chin scar (played by the 22-year-old actor Noah Centineo). I watched as tweet after admiring tweet about him went viral, gushing over his intense eye-contact and his coy mannerisms. I downloaded the film he features in, To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before, right before a four-hour plane flight. I figured I’d watch it once as a balm during early turbulence—a swift 99 minutes of yearning and angst and sororal bonding—and then turn to my stack of books. I ended up streaming it three times in a row.

The film is a treacly rom com about a plucky but unpopular teenage girl named Lara Jean Song Covey (Lana Condor) who, through a series of farcical happenings straight out of Molière, ends up in a fake relationship with the king of the cafeteria: Peter Kavinsky. TATBILB (as fans are calling it) is in direct dialogue with the the pastel suburban oeuvre of John Hughes—the characters watch Sixteen Candles mid-film—but it also subverts the Hughesian gaze, which was, at heart, white and moneyed, where ethnicity and eccentricity were at best, half-baked cantilevers for the main storyline, and at worst, offensive punchlines.

Lara Jean (aka LJ), TATBILB’s protagonist, is half-Korean, a fact that the film engages in its first scenes, as her Caucasian father, played by John Corbett, tries to make Korean food for his three daughters and fails at it. (Their mother died years ago, but he is trying nevertheless to perpetuate her traditions.) LJ’s Asian-American identity also comes up during a screening of Sixteen Candles, when a wary Peter Kavinsky asks her and her younger sister Kitty whether the character of Long Duk Dong is intended to be so openly racist. Lara Jean sighs that yes, the film is deeply problematic. But she says that she slogs through it because it gives her two hours in the dark with Jake Ryan, that object of so much 1980s hormonal lust, who cracked a million hearts in two when he cooed to Samantha to make a wish over her birthday cake.

Jenny Han, the Young Adult author who published To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before as the first book in a trilogy in 2014, had to fight for her film to have an Asian-American lead actress, and passed on several adaptation offers until Will Smith’s production company shared her vision that “the fact that the lead was Asian-American wasn’t seen as a liability.” The fact that TATBILB dropped in the same week as Crazy Rich Asians, another romantic comedy centering Asian actors, not only added momentum to the idea that the tide may be turning, but also that stories about identity don’t necessarily need to be weighted with trauma or sorrow; they can be about joy, froth, and even giddy obsession.

Lara Jean is a born romantic. She cherry-picks parts of schmaltzy films to focus on, and edits out the parts that hurt and mock her. She has shown a talent for restraint over the year—writing five gushy letters to boys she is infatuated with, and affixing stamps to them, but never sending them. After her older sister leaves for college, the younger sister Kitty notices how deeply lonely LJ seems and decides to liberate the love notes from their hatbox, putting them in the mail and allowing the humiliation chips fall where they may. This is a classic set-up for cinematic hoopla: secret letters arriving at their intended destinations, unbeknownst to their author. Suddenly, Lana Jean, who has been so good at bottling up her emotions, has to confront her worst nightmare.

When Peter Kavinsky—the ex-boyfriend of Lara Jean’s ex-best friend, Genevieve—receives her letter, which she wrote after an awkward middle school Spin The Bottle peck, he comes to her with a proposition: He wants to win Gen back, and Lara Jean wants to rise up the high school popularity food chain. They can pretend to be together, a mutually beneficial business arrangement that involves a written contract and a ban on kissing. (As many have pointed out, the “fake dating” trope is ancient, but effective.) What ensues is a slow process of both LJ and audiences falling for Peter, as he puts his hand in her back pocket, gently guides her through the gauntlet of a thumping house party, and playfully splashes at her in a jacuzzi during a school ski trip. Lara Jean wins the boy, Peter wins the girl, and all is right in the world after some minor scuffles and misunderstandings.

This is Netflix teenage fare at its best, sweet and soft around the edges. It looks especially marshmallow next to Insatiable, Netflix’s other foray into YA programming this month, which landed with a bitter sneer in the form of hideous fat jokes and wicked slurs. Insatiable treats adolescence like a battle, in which everyone is clawing for blood and is murderously mean (a schtick Heathers did in the ‘80s, far better). It doesn’t work because it punishes its viewers. It wants you to feel as bad watching it as its creators imagine teenage girls feel—but its creators don’t understand that teenage girls are not just black holes of insecurity and avarice. Sometimes they jump on their beds and write clandestine valentines in glitter gel pens and make impossible wishes about the future.

Hope is the way we really survive the hellscape that is high school, not abject cruelty. This is what the team that made To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before understands; there is no renewable resource more powerful than the burning optimism of a teenager, and sometimes all you have to do to create a hit is show that as plainly as possible.

As people re-watch the film in coming months, however, I hope that Lara Jean’s name will start trending as much as Peter Kavinsky’s has. Centineo performs a type of compassionate male energy that is in short supply in movies at the moment, but Lana Condor is undeniably TATBILB’s star. When the film opens, she is daydreaming, picturing herself in a crimson gown on a heath, as the wind blows across her face. In those moments, before the film snaps back into suburbia, Condor is fully convincing as the heroine of a serious period piece. Now, that is all I want to see.