While pixels and megabytes continue to spill for think pieces, hot takes and assorted reactions to the film-to-book phenom that is Crazy Rich Asians, over on Netflix there’s another new rom-com that casts a young woman with Asian heritage as the lead, this time for a more YA demographic. The streaming service’s latest female-driven original feature, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, which is based on a novel by Jenny Han, stars a likable Lana Condor (X-Men: Apocalypse) as a home-loving high-school junior navigating a suddenly complicated love life. The end result is pleasant but bland, representing a follow-up for agent-producer turned director Susan Johnson after her more interesting if flawed debut, Carrie Pilby, another YA adaptation starring Bel Powley.
Set in a non-specific northwestern American suburb (budget-friendly Vancouver served as location), the story pivots around middle-child Lara Jean (Condor), who lives with high-achieving eldest sister Margot (Janel Parrish), meant-to-be-adorable-but-in-fact-irritating kid sis Kitty (Anna Cathcart) and their father Dr. Covey (John Corbett), a widowed gynecologist. Although the kids still miss their recently deceased mother and her skill with Korean cuisine, as does dad, they’re nevertheless a tightly knit bunch, and all are somewhat anxious about how life will change when Margot goes off to university in Scotland in September.
Adding a tricky twist to the situation is the fact that Lara Jean (sometimes known as L.J.) has feelings for Margot’s boyfriend Josh (Israel Broussard). She’s kept these romantic yearnings a secret for years, and wouldn’t dream of acting on them for fear of hurting Margot, even after the latter decides to split with Josh before she leaves for college. For reasons not entirely well explained or credible anyway, L.J. has written a letter to Josh confessing her love, which she keeps hidden in her keepsake box. Also stored away are four other never-sent letters to boys she’s crushed on in the past, dating back to seventh grade, when a game of Spin the Bottle with Peter (played as a teenager by dishy Noah Centineo; in flashback as a tween by Hunter Dillon) made her feel all funny inside.
Somehow, at the start of the school year, the letters get mailed out (the culprit is totally obvious, although the supposedly super-clever L.J. fails to work out who it is). When Josh approaches her with his now-read letter in hand, the only thing L.J. can think to do to keep him from asking to explain it is to plant a fat kiss on nearby Peter, who has also received his letter. Although initially taken aback, Peter sees in the situation — once L.J. explains what’s going on — an opportunity to make his bitchy ex-girlfriend Gen (Emilija Baranac) jealous, so the two begin a fake dating relationship which necessitates that they must spend a good deal of real time together. Naturally, both crazy kids develop feelings for one another as a result.
You couldn’t truthfully say that hilarity ensues, although the subsequent misunderstandings are mildly diverting. Perhaps the most interesting thing about the film is how Johnson, with an assist from Sofia Alvarez’s workmanlike screenplay, manages to keep this very thinly plotted high concept aloft for so long. Even more impressive is the feat achieved of keeping the goody-two-shoes heroine sympathetic throughout without making her drop her moral standards, unlike, say, the heroines in Clueless or Mean Girls, two obvious touchstones here along with John Hughes movies such as the namechecked Sixteen Candles. It’s easy to imagine this will be the sort of film some straight-edge kids could watch with their parents without shame, which might mean it’s even more unlikely to earn the word-of-mouth cred that could generate clicks going forward.
Technically, it’s a standard-issue package, with only a little extra dazzle applied to the well-conceived costumes and production design that are on point for the milieu.
Production companies: Awesomeness Films, Overbrook Entertainment, All the Boys Productions
Cast: Lana Condor, Noah Centineo, Israel Broussard, Janel Parrish. Anna Cathcart, John Corbett, Tresso Mahoro, Madeleine Arthur, Emilija Baranac, Andrew Bachelor
Director: Susan Johnson
Screenwriter: Sofia Alvarez, based on a novel by Jenny Han
Producers: Dougie Cash, Matthew Kaplan, Jordan Levin,
Executive producers: Brett Bouttier, Don Dunn, Jenny Han, Robyn Marshall
Director of photography: Michael Fimognari
Production designer: Paul Joyal
Costume designer: Rafaella Rabinovich
Editors: Phillip J. Bartell, Joe Klotz
Music: Joe Wong
Music supervisor: Laura Webb, Lindsay Wolfington
Casting: Tamara-Lee Notcutt