What would you do if your deepest feelings, all your secret crushes, were revealed to the objects of your affection? Who would you become if you suddenly had the chance to redefine what everyone thinks of you? In Netflix’s latest romantic comedy, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, high schooler Laura-Jean Song Covey finds out.
Based on the book of the same name by Jenny Han, To All the Boys I’ve Loved follows shy romance novel fan Laura-Jean (Lana Condor, who was Jubilee in X-Men: Apocalypse) as she navigates high school after her love letters are mysteriously sent to all five of the crushes she’s ever had. Like Set It Up before it, To All the Boys joins a growing family of Netflix original rom-coms that are strong enough to appeal to more than a lovesick tween audience like that of The Kissing Booth, or the semi-ironic hate-watchers of A Christmas Prince.
When Laura-Jean’s older sister Margot (Janel Parrish, Pretty Little Liars) leaves for college, she breaks up with boy next door Josh (Israel Broussard, The Bling Ring), who also happens to be Laura-Jean’s current crush, and one of the five letter recipients. Sofia Alvarez’s script wisely dispatches two of the five boys right off the bat—Model UN man and summer camp beau—leaving us with the more manageable Josh, charismatic jock Peter (Noah Centineo, The Fosters), and Greg (Andrew Bachelor, Netflix’s When We First Met), who she waltzed with during a school dance.
One of the flick’s major charms is the Covey family, fathered winningly by try-hard loving dad John Corbett, who can’t quite seem to get out of his own way. The real parental figure here though is Janel Parrish as Margot, the oldest sister of the lot who was forced to take up the mantle of authority after her mother passed away. Yet as Margot departs for college in Scotland at the film’s outset, she too is leaving the rest of the characters adrift in the way only the absence of a family member can. Youngest sister Kitty (Anna Cathcart) brings the familiar archetype of the feisty smart kid to life with a performance that works especially well in conjunction with Centineo’s roguish Peter. The sisters have a rapport that feels lived in from the first scene, when they conspire to make their dad feel better about his bad cooking, and it provides the backbone for what makes Laura-Jean who she is, something that reads into Condor’s performance.
This family’s story is anchored by Laura-Jean, who Condor plays with guileless ease, bringing the audience into her world immediately and never letting go. One of the smartest choices this script makes is to continually focus the journey back on Laura-Jean, rather than on boyfriends or mean girls, or even changing who you are. Within the first 20 minutes or so, a new setup takes shape, but that’s not really what the movie is about either. To All the Boys is about facing your fears and letting people in, and who Laura-Jean becomes when her sister is gone and she has to stand on her own two feet rather than hiding in the sacrifices she makes for her family.
Would-be boyfriend Josh is a bit too much of a cipher to justify his involvement here other than to stay true to the source material. Instead the film would have benefitted from more of the Margot/Laura-Jean relationship. Between passing on the mothering mantle, the geographic distance of getting a first boyfriend, and Laura-Jean’s inability to lie to Margot, there’s certainly plenty to draw on. The film creates a fantasy sequence between the boy that suggests his earlier relationship with Margot affected his current one with Margot’s younger sister. But it’s so underserved that it’s hard to feel conflicted about Josh, especially when Pete and Laura-Jean’s own connection provides plenty of hurdles hurdles, helped along considerably by Centineo’s performance, not to mention a larger investment of screen time.
Susan Johnson’s direction is more eye-catching than is expected for this genre, or even this platform. The whole film has an unexpectedly graphic feel, characterized by color blocking, simulated split-screens, judicious overhead shots, and a great use of symmetry for Laura-Jean’s controlled chaos mindset. The film uses bright and bold colors throughout, and Laura-Jean’s room features a blue wall that makes her space feel inviting and full of life.
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Laura-Jean’s identity as a mixed-race teen is present from the jump, but in a way that feels organic to the film’s dynamics. Her white father struggles to make her deceased Korean mother’s recipes, and a white boy is confused by her love of Sixteen Candles in light of the Long Duk Dong character. Kitty’s no-duh response: the film’s hunky actor Jake Ryan.
On that note, To All the Boys is acutely aware of the genre it draws on, and it deserves to find its place alongside warm, whip-smart teen classics that are unafraid of complete and utter romance, like Easy A and The Duff. With clever writing, surprisingly creative direction, and an endlessly charming cast of characters, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before is a fun and witty rom-com that’s all pleasure, no guilt.