What makes a good romantic comedy? Many would argue that snappy writing, charismatic characters and convincing romantic chemistry are the main ingredients. However, another central ingredient is a healthy dose of escapism. In most studio-made romantic comedies, everything is cleaner, brighter and shinier. Take, for example, teen rom-coms — with their bacchanalian house-parties, lack of pressing homework deadlines and little to no acne. Netflix’s new rom-com To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before is pretty much the prototypical specimen of the teen rom-com sub-genre.
The film follows the romantic misadventures of Lara Jean Covey (Lana Condor), a smart, shy girl who has a difficult time expressing her true feelings. Case in point: Lara Jean writes intense love letters to her crushes and hides the notes in her closet instead of sending them. Lara Jean’s amiably spacey father (a perfectly cast John Corbett), capable older sister (Janel Parrish), and annoyingly precocious little sister (Anna Cathcart) encourage her to get out and live a little. Predictably, the love letters are mysteriously mailed to their intended recipients and hilarity ensues.
“Hilarity” might actually be a bit of a stretch. “Cute teen romance tropes” is probably the better term. After learning about the missing letters, Lara Jean is completely mortified. She has good reason to be. One of the love notes was addressed to Josh Sanderson (Israel Broussard), Lara Jean’s long-time crush and her older sister’s ex-boyfriend. Lara Jean absolutely does not want to deal with the fallout of that particular letter. Enter Peter Kavinsky (Noah Centineo), a sweetly stereotypical high school jock and Lara Jean’s one-time middle school crush. Peter and Lara Jean strike up a deal. They will pretend to date until Lara Jean’s whole love letter fiasco blows over — or until Peter’s nasty ex-girlfriend (Emilija Baranac) gets jealous. The arrangement will be completely and utterly platonic. You can probably guess where the movie goes from here.
From this plot description, To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before sounds like Disney-channel level fare, a collection of tired tropes. It almost is. The bones of the plot and the stereotypical supporting characters are pure cheese. However, the key word here is “almost.” The film is saved by its admirably understated tone and the charming performances of Noah Centineo and Lana Condor.
As the dreamboat Peter Kavinsky, Noah Centineo does everything required of him as romantic hero. He is likably blundering, transparently decent and convincingly head-over-heels in love with Lara Jean. It is not a complicated part, but Centineo has the warmth and charisma to make it sing. The real standout of this movie is Lana Condor. As Lara Jean, Condor is intelligent, mature, and graceful. She allows the emotional vulnerability of her character to shine through. Both actors give To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before an air of authenticity. The plot’s machinations may be unbelievable, but Centineo’s and Condor’s interactions are intelligently performed and suffused with genuine feeling.
Overall, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before is a movie with its heart in the right place. If you like artificial but cute teen romantic comedies, you will probably enjoy this film. If you don’t, you may not hate this one as much as you’d think. It’s like a piece of candy: it may give you a sugar headache, but it sure is sweet.