'To All The Boys I've Loved Before' review: A transformative coming-of-age story that is as wholesome as it is entertaining
'To All The Boys I've Loved Before' tackles a tried and tested genre by infusing a few modern day elements as a twist.
Netflix has wised up to its competitors in the streaming market, changing its strategy to focus on original content so as to cement its position as the top dog. It's a move that is well-advised considering it was only a matter of time before networks began pulling off television shows and movies off the platform to host it on their own. In that vein, the company put aside $8 billion to finance 500 original shows and movies for 2018 alone, and one of those will be the 'To All The Boys I've Loved Before."
Set for an August 17 release, the romantic comedy is a movie adaptation of Jenny Han's New York Times best-selling adult romance novel of the same name and stars Lana Condor of 'X-Men: Apocalypse' fame in the eponymous role of Lara Jean. The novel's popularity on release meant that the movie rights were almost immediately procured by Overbrook Entertainment, Will Smith's production company. Annie Neal was hired to adapt the book to the screen and Susan Johnson, known for 'Carrie Pilby' helmed the film from a screenplay by Sofia Alvarez.
'To All The Boys I've Loved Before' will be following in the wake of another one of Netflix's romcoms: 'Set It Up.' The feature about the two overworked assistants who try and set up their demanding bosses on dates proved to be a surprise hit on the platform and the hope amongst executives will have been for this upcoming flick to see similar success. Even more so because Han wrote two follow-ups to the book in 'P.S. I Still Love You' and ' Always and Forever, Lara Jean,' meaning there is a potential for it to spawn two sequels, and subsequently, a franchise.
There was sufficient hype surrounding the movie, with the teaser-trailer alone clocking a respectable 4.2 million views on YouTube. However insignificant a trailer may be in the larger scheme of things, this one indicated potential. The good news is that the movie has almost certainly delivered on that potential.
'To All The Boys I've Loved Before' is golden in the sense that it boasts a unique and intriguing premise: "Lara Jean's love life goes from imaginary to out of control when her secret letters to every boy she’s ever fallen for are mysteriously mailed out." Of course, building said premise is often where so many movies fall short — take for example Robin Williams' 'License to Wed,' which released to dismal reviews and flopped spectacularly at the box office despite an interesting plot — though Susan Johnson has managed to masterfully navigate the common pitfalls that make such romcoms feel stale and repetitive.
Relatability can go a long way in how a movie is eventually perceived by audiences. Condor's Lara Jean is the typical American teenager struggling to come to terms with the changing landscape at school and who finds herself besotted with every other guy who throws a glance her way. So, the younger cross-section of that audience has an extremely likable lead who (semi)accurately represents the predicaments they face on an everyday basis, no matter how seemingly irrelevant. For example, a running joke in the movie is that Lara Jean can't drive to save her life. How often do you see such a trivial problem highlighted in a teenage-focused romcom? Though in this case, (spoiler alert) the driving did turn out to be a front to hint at some of the deeper-rooted problems imbibed in Lara Jean, the argument stands.
The movie also does an excellent job of showcasing the high school dynamic. Johnson shines a light on the various cliques prevalent, as well as a covert sort of bullying that often goes unaddressed because it seems inconsequential to the physical kind, the latter best encapsulated through the homophobia Trezzo Mahoro's Lucas James experiences — on learning Lara Jean has a crush on him, he reveals to her that he's gay, but asks she keep it a secret, casually shrugging and revealing he didn't want the others to know because high school kids could be mean.
Because one can reasonably predict how a romcom flows — girl falls in love with the guy, the honeymoon period follows, there's suddenly trouble in paradise and finally, they make up and get their happily ever after — it can prove challenging to alter the formula and still keep the essence that makes the genre what it is. In 'To All The Boys I've Loved Before,' subverts this obstacle through Condor's narration, which with its soothing, monotone flow gives the movie an added dimension and provides a contrast to the chaos engulfing Lara Jean's life at any given moment. The lead character narrating her own life is a trope done to death, but why fix something that isn't broken?
Like most others in the genre, it does conform to stereotypes here and there, but thankfully, not the biggest one. How often is it that you've watched a show or a movie where the sweet-innocent guy next door eventually thwarts the mean and evil jock to land the girl? 'To All the Boys I've Loved Before' throws that overused theme on its head by enacting a role reversal and giving you a feature where it's the jock who's the love interest instead. It's a pleasant change of perspective that you find yourself appreciating more and more as the story moves forward.
The dialogues are quite on point too, carrying just the right amount of zip and self-deprecatory humor that's becoming of teenagers. Rarely hyperbolic and poignant at just the right moments — "I let myself pretend I liked it," Lara Jean says of her relationship with Peter Kavinsky (Noah Centineo). But one particular line stands out more than the others. As Lara Jean contemplates how to proceed with her life after a tumultuous break-up, her sister not unkindly chides her: "Can you admit some part of you doesn't want everything in your life to be a fantasy?"
Despite featuring in relatively minor roles, both Christine (Madeleine Arthur), her best friend, and Dr. Dan Covey (John Corbett), her OB/GYN father prove to be extremely likable as well. However, the accolade of most significant supporting character should undoubtedly go to the cunning little sister Kitty (Anna Cathcart), who in addition to being a polar opposite to Lara Jean, proves to be the catalyst for her sister's change.
But the film is not without its flaws. For one, the music is quite jarring on occasion, failing to capture the mood in the room and trudging on with its upbeat, bubbly register. There's also an issue with the length of the film which was likely a by-product of wanting to stay as true to the source material as possible. The result is that it reaches a point where it feels as though it overstays its welcome and you begin wondering when it's going to end. The direction becomes quite haphazard and the last quarter is painfully slow and clunky, punctuated by empty conversations and a constant back and forth that gets tiresome pretty quickly.
At its crux, 'To All The Boys I've Loved' is the transformative, coming-of-age journey of self-discovery of a teenager who finds herself having to embrace change when she's forcefully confronted with it. Infused with a characteristic awkward humor and a family element that provides a backdrop for its numerous subplots, the movie is educative as it is entertaining and wholesome. Netflix almost certainly has a gem on its hands, and on release, will have laid down a marker for those that attempt to follow it.
Watch the trailer for 'To All The Boys I've Loved Before' here: