If John Hughes were alive today, he might very well make a movie like “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before,” which doesn’t talk down to its audience about subjects such as sex and dating, but instead treats them as young adults, demonstrating how anyone’s initial attempts at romance are like learning to walk: We’re all a little bit wobbly at first. Conceived as a kind of “Sixteen Candles” for the Snapchat generation, this endearing Netflix Original offers an honest, unsentimental take on the mating lives of hormone-addled high school students, earning extra points for casting Asian-American actress Lana Condor in what would have been the Molly Ringwald role.
As Ringwald herself pointed out in a courageous New Yorker essay last April, even Hughes — whom an entire generation of audiences and critics have since canonized as the poet laureate of American adolescence — had his blind spots, which makes it especially gratifying to see a teen romantic comedy that channels what he did best while treating its nonwhite lead as a nonissue (unless you count the scene where our heroine shows “Sixteen Candles” to her white boyfriend, only to have him interrupt the movie to ask, “I’m sorry, but isn’t this character, Long … Dong … Duk, like, kinda racist?”).
Condor plays high school junior Lara Jean Covey, the second of three children in a middle-class family living somewhere amid the Portland suburbs. She’s super-close to her two sisters, Margot (Janel Parrish) and Kitty (Anna Cathcart), but also conflicted. Lara Jean has a secret: She’s got a thing for Margot’s boyfriend, adorable next-door neighbor Josh (Israel Broussard), and writes him a love letter that she addresses, stamps, but never intends to send, stashing it in a box with four other soul-baring notes penned to the boys she’s crushed on over the years — all but one of whom is white, like her dad (John Corbett).
Margot goes off to college all the way in Scotland, dumping Josh, and though Lara Jean would never dream of betraying her sister by making a play for her man, that doesn’t stop her younger sister from dropping all five envelopes in the mail. Whereas ultra-shy Lara Jean had been practically invisible (or so she thought) to all the guys at school, suddenly she’s the center of attention as each of these young men learns how she truly felt about him — even though, in most cases, writing those letters was her way of putting the emotions to rest.
That mortifying concept hails from Jenny Han’s hit YA novel of the same name (the first of a trilogy overtly referenced by the film’s dot-dot-dot ending), and though screenwriter Sofia Alvarez and director Susan Johnson (“Carrie Pilby”) downplay the embarrassment that exposing such sentiments would inevitably cause, the letter-sending effectively forces Lara Jean out of her shell. One by one, her old crushes show up to talk things out.
But if you might assume that such forced candor would inspire a newfound honesty in Lara Jean’s life, think again: She still doesn’t have the guts to deal with her attraction toward Josh, and quickly finds herself faux dating popular jock Peter (Noah Centineo of “The Fosters”), whom she once kissed during a game of Spin the Bottle, thus ending her friendship with grade-school friend Genevieve (Emilija Baranac). As it happens, Peter and Gen just broke up, and he hopes that pretending to go out with Lara Jean will make her jealous, or some such, while Lara Jean uses the arrangement to hide from the other guys who just got her notes.
It’s all rather contrived, but it sets in motion a pleasant and perfectly relatable situation comedy about a 16-year-old’s awkward first attempts at dating. Coupled with “Love, Simon” (also about a shy teenager who finds it easier to express his feelings in writing) and the more overtly sexual “Blockers” earlier this year, Johnson’s film is part of a wave of refreshingly non-cynical portrayals of how kids growing up in the oversexualized and media-saturated modern world pursue the romance that’s right for them — and as in those films, representation is everything. So much of the movie’s charm owes to Condor’s lead performance, which balances the character’s timidity with her lovability. Any guy would be lucky to date her, but the choice is ultimately hers.