Teen films aren’t as popular as they used to be. The high school genre had its heyday once upon a time, with a renaissance kicked off by the infectiously enjoyable Clueless. Amy Heckerling’s witty comedy (which I reviewed a while back) set off a wave of teen-centered cinema that sparked turn-of-the-century films like Bring It On and 10 Things I Hate About You, before things climaxed in the genre-bending Mean Girls. But in the years since, widely-released teen films have fallen by the wayside, with only the occasional exception (Easy A, The Duff) to shake things up.
Part of this, I assume, is systemic to the industry. Like most age-dependent genres, teen films don’t sell as strongly as they did fifteen or thirty years ago (let alone back in the days of Andy Hardy), and most major studios are hesitant to take a leap with a new production. More likely, then, these films tend to wind up heading straight to a TV network or streaming service – and even then, the results are charitably mixed.
But that brings me to the latest addition to the genre: To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before. The film debuted on Netflix over the past weekend, garnering rave reviews from critics – and judging by the response on social media, its support base is already growing rapidly. It may seem surprising to the outside observer, but the film’s popularity is in fact well-warranted. To All the Boys is among the best teen films to debut – in theaters, on cable, or any streaming service – in over a decade.
(Moderate spoilers for the film follow.)
Based on Jenny Han’s bestselling novel, To All the Boys follows the story of Lara Jean Song Covey (Lana Condor, in what one can hope is a breakout performance), a teenage girl whose romantic life exists as a series of love letters she’s written, and never sent, to her multiple crushes. When those letters unexpectedly find their way into the hands of their addressees, Lara Jean scrambles to retain her high school status, and use the opportunity to net her true crush – and sister’s former boyfriend – Josh Sanderson (Israel Broussard). With the help of another love-letter recipient, Peter Kavinsky (Noah Centineo, in what has already become a breakout performance), she crafts a fake-boyfriend plan to get Josh’s attention… but things don’t go the way you’d expect.
Okay, that was false. To All the Boys won’t earn many points for unpredictability – the film even tips its own hand early on with the “reveal” of how Lara Jean’s lovers got their letters. But what it lacks in spontaneity, thefilm makes up for in sheer skill of execution.
There were so many paths that screenwriter Sophie Alvarez and director Susan Johnson could have taken to make the film more “accessible” to an adult audience. They could have imagined it as a loopy comedy, turning Lara Jean into a hapless romantic with too many boys and not enough time. Or they could have interpreted it as a cynical satire, with snide voiceovers bemoaning the inhuman angst of adolescence.
But To All the Boys avoids these well-travelled routes and opts to tell its story in a more unique way: honestly. Lara Jean’s predicament may feel salvaged from a bygone sitcom, but the film treats her with respect, acknowledging her flaws without shaming her for them. The film’s opening montage perfectly key us into her downward trajectory – from unrequited love to hapless third wheel – and help us root for her eventual comeback.
And it allows her to grow all the while. Early scenes feature snippets of voiceover on the soundtrack, but the internal monologue is gradually phased out as Lara Jean grows more accustomed to external communication. Perhaps the most ingenious twist of the film is how quickly it dispenses with the comic trappings of its cat-out-of-the-bag setup – by spending more time focused on Lara Jean’s relationship with just two of the boys, the film develops a solid core triangle to keep its supporting players in check.
But the key ingredient which makes To All the Boys stand out among the competition is its charm. The script is sweet without feeling treacly, and emotional without being manufactured or manipulative. It tells a genuine and hopeful story about love and longing in the age of adolescence, and skillfully crafts one of the most investing teenage romances ever put to screen.
The film’s optimistic tone can’t excuse some shortcomings. The supporting cast, for instance, isn’t as fleshed out as it could have been – characters like Gen (the generic “popular” girl) and Kitty (Lara Jean’s younger sister) rub off as disappointingly two-dimensional, given the roles they respectively play. And the film’s occasional attempts at direct comedy don’t always hit their mark, as exemplified by an unfunny scene that comes midway through the credits.
But To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before is, on the whole, a well-made feel-good film, one that treats its young target audience with respect while offering more nuance than older viewers would anticipate. Perhaps, it demonstrates, the teen film genre doesn’t need revamping – it just needs its stories told in the right way.
To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before is currently streaming on Netflix.