I love seeing Lara Jean Covey in pain. Then again, you probably do, too. Hardcore fans (and hatewatchers) of Netflix’s smash hit To All the Boys film series yearn to catch prim little Lara Jean feeling angst-ridden or mortified or crestfallen or heartbroken — after all, if she were content all the time, there would simply be no story to tell. The teen heroine has faced romantic humiliation (her little sister mailing her private love letters to her crushes in To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before) and romantic indecision (choosing between two disparate love interests in To All the Boys: P.S. I Love You). Now, in the final entry in this teen rom-com trilogy based on Jenny Han’s Y.A. book series, Lara Jean must face romantic doubt, as the fantasy of her “perfect” relationship deflates before her eyes. While she and Peter (Noah Centineo) hubristically plan their future at Stanford together, reality punctures their fragile balloon.
Lara Jean (Lana Condor) is the kind of mewling naïf who internalizes her despair. When she should get mad, she instead gets sad. When she should call others to account for their bad behavior, she instead blames herself for not capitulating to their unreasonable demands. She’d rather wallow in excuses and justifications than acknowledge, let alone resent, the psychological harm others do her.
To All the Boys: Always and Forever is the most mature, and thus, most entertaining of the three films because it highlights the choices Lara Jean makes for herself instead of the choices she makes about other people. Where the previous stories saw her grow in confidence thanks to the sexual attention of boys, this final story permits her to grow in confidence precisely because she rejects (albeit, with great difficulty) the expectations of being a love object. Lara Jean is finally a person, not a projection.
But, then again, so is her too-good-too-be-true boyfriend, Peter, a dude so impossibly handsome, respectful and amorous that my background in critical Lifetime studies immediately led me to mistrust his love bombing grand gestures. (Honestly, if my high school boyfriend stood waiting for me inside my own house so he could hand me a bouquet the minute I got home from an international vacation, I’d be a little weirded out!) Director Michael Fimognari and screenwriter Katie Lovejoy soon dispense with the mushy-gushy make-believe of their union, allowing Peter to show a side of himself that isn’t so rosy. His noxious egocentrism, while generally infuriating, also renders him more human and less Ken Doll-ish than ever before. The sooner Lara Jean sees through the delusions of puppy love, the better for her well-being.
After returning from a buoyant spring break family trip to South Korea to connect with her mother’s heritage, Lara Jean sinks back into the anxiety of college admissions. Sure, there’s prom and graduation coming up, not to mention her widowed father’s impending wedding, but making lifelong memories with loved ones is little more than a distraction from her relationship. She cannot wait to seal her future with Peter — marriage, house, career, babies — once they each receive that precious Stanford acceptance e-mail. “It’s the perfect school for us,” she coos via voiceover narration. “He’ll play lacrosse. I’ll study English Lit. And best of all, we won’t be one of those couples that breaks up because of college.” Oh, you vexing little dummy.
Naturally, fate has other plans — thank God. While her sisters encourage her to consider New York University, Lara Jean is determined to accept her Berkeley offer merely because she’ll be one hour away from Palo Alto. It doesn’t take Peter long to get over his disappointment about their future separation: She can just transfer to Stanford before their sophomore year!
Lara Jean doesn’t yet have the language to process her feelings about Peter’s presumptions and possessiveness, but her face frequently betrays her uneasiness about this prospect, even when she’s robotically spouting his plans for her to friends and family. Not once does he consider she may love Berkeley or blossom there. In fact, he doesn’t reflect on her social or intellectual opportunities at all. He just expects her to follow him around like a newly hatched duckling imprinting on the first thing it spies. Even at their lowest moments, neither of them ever questions why he didn’t arrange for more geographical options for himself during the college application process. When Lara Jean starts to imagine what her life could be like if she did go to college in New York City, Peter simply cannot accept it.
He eventually accuses her of not loving him enough. Lara Jean isn’t old enough or wise enough yet to understand it, but Peter can only see himself when he looks into her eyes. She may not have this figured out by the end of the film, but she’ll learn it sooner or later.
Cast: Lana Condor, Noah Centineo, Anna Cathcart, John Corbett, Sarayu Blue, Madeleine Arthur, Emilija Baranc
Director: Michael Fimognari
Premieres: Friday, February 12 (Netflix)