By Vivian Nguyen
Northwest Asian Weekly
The Netflix original movie “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” has all the hallmarks of an indulgent romantic comedy: beautiful high schoolers (as in, actors), sharp-witted dialogue, and all the feels to make you feel like you’re falling in the love for the first time.
Based on author Jenny Han’s novel of the same name, the movie tells the story of Lara Jean Covey (Lana Condor), a reserved yet charming 16-year-old girl who writes and addresses love letters to her biggest crushes without the intent of ever mailing them. Lara Jean has a rich imagination, and she’d much rather live in her fantasy world of being in love than face the reality and risks that come with it.
One of Lara Jean’s crushes is Josh (Israel Broussard), who’s the boyfriend of her older sister, Margot (Janel Parrish). Without spoiling the film, the love letters secretly get mailed out, much to Lara Jean’s chagrin. When one of the love letters finds its way to Josh, Lara Jean pretends that another crush, Peter (Noah Centineo), is her boyfriend, to avoid dealing with a confrontation with Josh. It’s the perfect set-up for a quintessential rom-com.
Coming on the heels of the critically acclaimed box office movie “Crazy Rich Asians,” “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” reflects the rise of Asian American protagonists on mainstream platforms. Both Condor and Constance Wu, who plays the heroine in “Crazy Rich Asians,” are cast as Asian American leads in rom-coms. It’s a foreign yet welcome feeling to see these faces in rom-coms — a genre that previously excluded Asian Americans from the spotlight.
There’s nothing new with the fake relationship trope found in “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” — though it’s honestly one of my favorite rom-com clichés — but it’s precisely because it’s centered on a trope that I find this movie interesting.
Many well-known films featuring Asian Americans or Asians have largely focused on high-stakes drama or action. But for once, these successful rom-coms let Asian American characters be the center of stories that are simply fun, light-hearted entertainment. “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” does this particularly well since it focuses on a familiar story — one’s first love — so there’s a relatable element for all, regardless of race. To have a character of color drive a film that isn’t focused on race is the ultimate litmus test of an effective, universal story, and it’s something that “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” achieves.
Condor, who’s best-known for her role as Jubilee in the superhero film “X-Men: Apocalypse,” gives a heartwarming performance as the movie’s lead, and she does an exceptional job of bringing a shy, nuanced character to life on screen. Centineo also delivers as the charming, vulnerable jock, and was well-casted as the leading man. The two actors have undeniable chemistry, with many of the memorable and weightier scenes built from the tension they share.
“To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” has gotten some criticism for not featuring any Asian American male romantic leads. Lara Jean’s love interests are mostly white, though there is one boy who is Black, but he’s also gay in the movie, so that romance dies immediately for that reason. One of the best scenes in the movie sees Lara Jean and Peter enter a contract for their fake relationship. The two define expectations and boundaries for each other — no kissing, but a hand in Lara Jean’s back jean pocket is OK — and as they debate the rules, it quickly becomes clear to the viewer that they’ll be falling for each other. And that might be the best thing about this movie — these characters have no idea what they’re in for, but we do. It’s like a wink to the viewer, and the icing on the cake is watching the relationship unfold: the highs, the lows, the messy ride of it all, and knowing that the mandatory feel-good ending awaits.
Vivian Nguyen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.