In the late '90s and early 2000s, teen movies dominated the film world. Movies like She's All That, 10 Things I Hate About You, and Can't Hardly Wait were so ubiquitous that a parody of the genre titled Not Another Teen Movie starring Chris Evans was actually released in 2001. But in the years since Freddie Prinze Jr. stopped playing the role of every teen girl's ideal dream boyfriend (OK, he might still be my personal dream boyfriend, right behind the aforementioned Best Chris), the popularity of the teen movie has diminished in much the same way the romantic comedy, a thematic cousin of the teen movie genre, has also struggled. But now Netflix is keen on filling the void, and it is doing a rather remarkable job feeding an audience, both young and old(er), that's been starved for proper teen comedy and romance for more than a decade.
The streaming service's latest addition to the genre, an adaptation of Jenny Han's young adult novel To All the Boys I've Loved Before, is a sweet breath of fresh air after May's The Kissing Booth cobbled together a mercilessly boring narrative from every groan-inducing teen movie cliché — and I really do mean every single one. Starring Asian American actress Lana Condor (X-Men: Apocalypse) as the hopelessly romantic Lara Jean Covey, the high school-set To All the Boys I've Loved Before follows what happens when Lara Jean's old love letters, which she addressed for some bizarre reason, are accidentally mailed to her former crushes. That list includes the boy next door, Josh Sanderson (Israel Broussard), who also happens to be the boyfriend of her older sister, and the popular lacrosse player Peter Kavinsky (The Fosters' Noah Centineo, who is also in Netflix's upcoming teen movie Sierra Burgess Is a Loser). Talk about awkward.
The film, written by Sofia Alvarez and directed by Susan Johnson, is essentially carried by Condor, whose performance makes Lara Jean an accessible, witty, and charming leading lady viewers would be happy to spend more time with should Netflix continue her story by adapting the next two books in the trilogy, P.S. I Still Love You and Always and Forever, Lara Jean. But although Lara Jean tends to live in a fantasy world inspired by her favorite romance novels — shout-out to young women who read! — she's also just a typical teenager who feels things very deeply, but is scared of letting people in after losing her mother at a young age.
Lara Jean's shyness coupled with her tendency to romanticize everything is a departure from the over-sexualized teens we've seen on a lot of teen-oriented TV shows over the last decade and a half. This helps contribute to the film's overall sense of innocence, which in turn calls back to the inherent sweetness of classic '80s teen films like Say Anything... or Sixteen Candles. A prime example of this is when Lara Jean, who's never had a boyfriend, agrees to pretend to date Peter to make his ex-girlfriend jealous while simultaneously covering up her own feelings for Josh. She says she doesn't want to go on kissing him as part of their ruse because she doesn't want "all her firsts to be fake."
Really driving home the film's connection to the teen movies of the '80s and '90s, though, is the fact Lara Jean is actually a fan of them. She cites Sixteen Candles as a romantic classic — and later makes Peter watch it — something that tells us the film's sweet tone is purposeful. And if Lara Jean and her interests speak to the teens who came of age alongside Molly Ringwald's Sam Baker or any of her '90s counterparts, the fact that Peter has never even heard of the John Hughes film speaks to the generation of teens growing up in 2018. Hopefully this film, and those that will no doubt come after it on Netflix, might allow everyone to meet somewhere in the middle.
The movie isn't without its flaws, though; Condor sometimes has to do a bit of heavy lifting to make the story work, while Lara Jean's sisters, including Pretty Little Liars' Janel Parrish as the college-bound Margot, are both distinct characters, but sometimes feel miscast. However, when I look back at the movies I fell in love with as a young teen, it's clear to me now they weren't perfect either. Sometimes they weren't even good. In fact, I rewatched Down To You recently, and it's objectively a very bad movie, but I also don't care. It's baked into my heart at this point.
And this makes me wonder: Does To All the Boys I've Loved Before, which is a good movie and a faithful adaptation of Han's novel, have to be picture perfect to appeal to wide audiences? The Kissing Booth is a terrible film that felt like a cruel form of punishment, yet teens gobbled up its recycled plotlines like they were the latest Marvel movie. Are today's youth simply too young to have any idea of what constitutes a good teen movie? Do they simply not care about whether or not a film is good? Or are they too starved for teen movies to even know the difference?
After all, what is the point of a film like To All the Boys I've Loved Before or The Kissing Booth? We watch these movies not because we want to know if they're good or bad but because we know there will be a happy ending. Sure, we all hope the movies are more like the story of Lara Jean and Peter and not a cliche-driven trashfest that makes a root canal look like a good time, but even if To All the Boys I've Loved Before was wretched, I'm not sure it would stop teens — and let's face it, many of us who haven't been a teen for a very long time — from watching it. It just so happens that To All the Boys I've Loved Before is actually charming and sweet and as such is a much-needed storm in a very long drought that reminds us not just what we've been missing all these years, but also just how timeless teen movies and their coming-of-age stories can be.
To All the Boys I've Loved Before is now streaming on Netflix.