In the digital era, the handwritten letter is a dying breed of communication. However, in the Netflix original movie, “To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before,” the handwritten letter is the accidental catalyst to one of the best love stories told on screen this decade.
Adapted from the first novel in Asian-American author Jenny Han’s Lara Jean trilogy, “To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before” brings the audience into the world of Lara Jean Covey (Lana Condor). Lara Jean, who writes letters to the boys she’s fallen in love with over the course of her life only to hide them in a box on the topmost shelf of her closet, is thrown for a loop when her letters are sent to their unintended recipients. The fallout of her letters pushes her life into a romantic tailspin and tests the strengths of her relationships with neighbor Josh (Israel Broussard), and her mortal enemy’s boyfriend, Peter Kavinsky (Noah Centineo).
The story is sure to become a new classic. Director Sarah Johnson and screenwriter Sofia Alvarez use the story of accidentally mailed love letters as an honest reflection of how romance plays out among young people in 2018. But snail mail is an unusual locomotive for romantic intention, as handwritten correspondence these days is almost unheard of. This also speaks volumes of Lara Jean’s character, revealing her to be a true romantic in the age of text message hookups.
The film uses classic motifs of teen cinema, tying it to the old guards of ‘80s teen comedies, such as “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” with freeze frame narration. There is a nod to “10 Things I Hate About You” in Condor’s characterization of Lara Jean, where the leading ladies have similar experiences in their first forays into the dating world. “To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before” and many favored films of the teen drama genre also share a contrived storyline. The circumstances of Lara Jean’s romance with Peter are incredibly unrealistic and thus draws the film away from reality.
Cinematographer Michael Fimognari’s Wes Anderson-esque framing and use of symmetry positively pops against the mood colors used by production designer Paul Joyal and costume designer Rafaella Rabinovich, and help Johnson and Alvarez’s storytelling along the way.
Camera placement also remains at Condor’s eye level, further enhancing the communication of Lara Jean’s experiences from her literal point of view. The mixing of still and panning shots draws the viewer into the story at the pace it is being told — either moving them through the action with Lara Jean, or holding them in the moment as she debates a moral dilemma.
The final and most important achievement comes in the form of how Lara Jean’s ethnicity is used, or rather ignored, as a plot device. Usually, Asian-American characters are portrayed as very little more than just that: Asian. However, in the case of Lara Jean, her Korean heritage is only mentioned in two scenes in reference to food, praising its taste. She gets to be a fully-realized character, whereas many Asian-American leads have been reduced to stereotypes of their ethnicity. This isn’t the norm for stories told with characters of color — especially women of color — at their center, and it sets a fantastic precedent of dimensionality for Hollywood to follow.
Teen romance has never looked so good. “To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before” is a complex and dynamic story told with exceptional visuals and A-plus casting. Before watching, make sure to keep a box of tissues nearby and someone to cuddle with because this film will have you in your feelings.
“To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before”