As far as high school rom-coms go, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before doesn’t stray very far from the classic tropes we’re used to seeing. Yet the story is so beautifully told and characters so easily loveable, it isn’t hard to overlook all the cheesy lines to enjoy the film.
In fact, TABILB has a lot to offer in terms of its unique premise, strong female lead, supporting characters, diversity, recurring motifs and, of course, the gorgeous Noah Centineo. It’s no wonder that the film has gained so much popularity this month and has even received a 95 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Still, there are some ways in which TABILB has fallen short of being the “perfect” rom-com, if such a thing even exists.
Adapted by a book of the same name by Jenny Han, the film stars Lana Condor as Lara Jean, a 16-year-old girl who’s very close with her father and two sisters. Despite her avid love for romance in novels and in her own writings, LJ struggles with developing relationships with anyone outside of her family and sole best friend, Christine. Over the course of her life, LJ has written five letters to five different boys she’s loved in the past, one of which is her older sister Margot’s ex-boyfriend, Josh. Yet LJ’s life takes a dramatic turn when she discovers one day her letters have been anonymously mailed to each of the boys she’s loved. This causes one boy in particular, Peter Kavinsky, to take notice of her in a special way. Peter proposes a plan to fake-date LJ to make his ex-girlfriend jealous, which LJ agrees to.
This captivating story pulls in audiences and takes them on a journey that highlights the trials and tribulations of falling in love, missing someone who was once in your life, and learning to trust and open up. LJ and Peter — Noah Centineo — eventually become closer than they originally planned, bonding over past experiences that were sad and even traumatic for the two.
Of course, it’d be remiss not to mention that this film features an Asian-American leading woman, during a summer of Asian-American prosperity in the film industry. If one hadn’t read the books before, they might assume there would be a reference at some point to her race. Yet throughout the film there was never a single word about her skin color or background, which was incredibly refreshing and just another step towards normalizing Asian-Americans as leading women and men.
As a character, LJ is also a very complex person who’s easily to fall in love with and root for. She displays admirable qualities like smarts, creativity and empathy, which allows her to care for other character’s emotions above her own. This makes her not only an admirable character, but a wonderful sister, daughter, friend and — fake — girlfriend. Even when she’s met with adversity or manipulation from other characters, she responds with kindness and respects others who don’t always respect her back.
Some of the recurring motifs in this film like driving, abandonment and love letters, are deeply representational of struggles many of us face in real life. LJ struggles with driving herself and her younger sister to school everyday because of LJ’s lack of control on the road. This might be indicative of her inability to control her life and drive herself forward toward a progressive future with positive relationships.
Another motif, abandonment, resurfaces during times when LJ and Peter reflect on parents who were absent in their life. LJ’s mother died when she was younger, whereas Peter’s father left the family just two years earlier in the film. LJ’s experiences with abandonment makes it easy to understand why she has such a hard time developing relationships, since she’s afraid that if she gets too close to anyone they’ll leave her the way her mother did. As for Peter, his inability to move on from his ex-girlfriend may be related to his abandonment issues with his father and his fear that he’s not good enough.
Finally, the love letters that LJ writes might be representational of how fantasies are often seen as “too good to be true”, yet all we need to make these fantasies come to life is to push our boundaries and step outside our comfort zones.
While these elements of the film make it a wonderful summer rom-com, there are also some elements that could be better. For one, the acting isn’t always very believable. At times it’s even difficult to stay invested in the story because it’s just too obvious that the actors are trying so hard. Perhaps this can be attributed to the ways the film is trying to stay true to the dialogue in the book, yet it almost feels as if the actors were reading lines straight from the novel on-camera.
Another off-putting element was Peter’s displays of manipulation during his fake relationship with LJ. While using her to get back at his ex, he occasionally pushes her to do things that she expresses discomfort in doing. During certain parts of the film he gaslights and invalidates LJ by making it about himself and his inability to let his go of his past relationship. By romanticizing these behaviors, the film might be showing young girls that it’s love and lead them to believe they should put their discomfort aside to make a boy happy.
All in all, TABILB is deserving of the hype it’s received and may even go down as one of this summer’s best romantic flicks. Along with appreciating the life lessons we get from the film, we should be wary of the negative side effects that come with romanticizing a manipulative relationship. Overall, the film deserves 3 out of 5 stars.
Carla Suggs can be reached for inquiry at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @c_swayzy.