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Lara Jean Covey is someone I would have Mean Girl-ed in high school. The chick is a straight-up wiener. Her only personality trait is that she “feels emotions deeply” — as evidenced, supposedly, by gooey love letters she wrote and never mailed to her crushes between the ages of tween and too-old-for-this-kinda-crap. She never gets angry, never challenges the audience. Her biggest problem is that she’s drowning in generic hot boy suitors. She thinks of herself as an underdog, but she’s actually Pinterest come alive: the parade of fashionable headbands; the lush, curled fake eyelashes; the impeccably twee floral wallpaper; those perfect homemade cupcakes she bakes wearing a perfect ruffled apron. Pass me my Burn Book, stat.
On what planet does a teenage “nerd” leave a prim little box of addressed love letters around when she’s got a bratty little sister lurking? On what planet does her little sister mailing these letters not end with Lara Jean’s utter humiliation and her crushes’ abject disgust? If that happened to a real-life teen, especially if she had the audacity to be less beautiful than 23-year-old actress Lana Condor, she’d have hell to pay in the form of cruel pranks, endless ridicule and sexual harassment. Poor Lara Jean, there are just too many cute/respectful/gutless Ken Dolls from her past who want to be her boyfie!
RELEASE DATE Feb 12, 2020
Netflix’s To All the Boys: P.S. I Still Love You is a charmless sequel to a charmless YA rom-com. (Extra rom, hold the com.) There are more instances of Subway product placement here than characters onscreen I actually want to spend time with. To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, which became a sensation for the streamer in 2018 despite its general lethargy, starred Condor as Lara Jean, another rom-com protagonist defined by their obsession with rom-coms and romance novels. (Apparently love of tropes is a new trope: The Mindy Project, Jane the Virgin and Austenland already laid this track.) Across her adolescence, Lara Jean writes five adoring letters to her most intense crushes.
When her impish little sis posts the letters to spice up Lara Jean’s drippy life, so many heartthrobs come crawling out of her past to woo her that she puts us to sleep just trying to choose one. One of the recipients, the former boyfriend of her nemesis, uses this as an opportunity to make his ex jealous and win her back. Lara Jean agrees to pretend to be his girlfriend in a bid to disguise her infatuation with her sister’s ex-boyfriend. Naturally, they fall for each other in the process. (Yeah, you’ve seen this plot before.)
In P.S. I Still Love You, Lara Jean and Peter Kavinsky (Noah Centineo, effortlessly sweet) are now dating and blissfully underwhelmed. “I’ve never been a girlfriend before,” she peeps. “I hope I’m good at it.” She’s consumed with insecurity, convinced she’s Peter’s second choice and unable to measure up to Gen (Emilija Baranc), her tormenter. He’s still close with Gen and frustrated with Lara Jean’s hot-and-cold behavior. She soon falls into a flirtation with another one of her letter recipients, her former sixth-grade crush, John Ambrose (Jordan Fisher), a sensitive musician who just happens to volunteer with her at a local retirement community. (In case you didn’t know this is supposed to be a romantic comedy, Lara Jean pratfalls upon spotting John Ambrose for the first time in half a decade, slipping on a jar of spilled candies.) John Ambrose is gentle and unassuming; Peter is rougher around the edges. Who will this future serial monogamist choose?
Love triangles and opposites-attract scenarios are the backbones of teen comedy, but these stories are much more interesting when there’s some sociological bite to them. For example, Pretty in Pink, Some Kind of Wonderful, She’s All That and countless others in the genre pinpoint class as a significant social barrier for our potential couples. Lara Jean is half Korean, half white and struggles with the long-ago death of her Asian American mother, but aside from director Michael Fimognari throwing Lana Condor in a hanbok for the sequel’s opening scene, the film doesn’t approach how she relates to being a hapa teenager. Of course, the mere existence of a biracial protagonist does not mean a story needs to meaningfully address race or cultural plurality. But here, neglecting these topics is a disservice to the film, coming off more as erasure than a boon for color-blind representation. Ultimately, with its teal-tinted cinematography and airy set design, the To All the Boys franchise is much more visually interesting than it is narratively interesting.
These films may revere ’80s/’90s teen culture — as evidenced by Lara Jean’s love for John Hughes movies, despite their penchant for anti-Asian caricature, and P.S. I Still Love You‘s use of Backstreet Boys a cappella, despite the fact that said a cappella singers were negative-5-years-old when “I Want It That Way” debuted — but they don’t have the mettle to emulate it. Lara Jean may be chaste for convenience’s sake alone. The question of sex only comes up briefly, in a scene where Lara Jean accuses Peter of missing the eroticism of his previous relationship. She makes it clear that she’s not ready to go there and he angelically obeys this boundary with no more discussion about it. Thus, Fimognari and Co. don’t have to go to any lengths to moralize or confront the characters’ behaviors or desires. Sex isn’t just vanilla here; it’s simply a non-factor.
No movie should make me miss American Pie, a film that’s at least honest about 17-year-old lust. Bring back the rom-coms about teenage dirt bags.
Cast: Lana Condor, Noah Centineo, Jordan Fisher, Anna Cathcart, John Corbett, Sarayu Blue, Madeleine Arthur, Emilija Baranac, Holland Taylor, Ross Butler, Janel Parrish
Director: Michael Fimognari
Premieres: Wednesday (Netflix)
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