×

Film Review: Netflix’s ‘To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before’

In the vein of 'Set It Up,' this winning Netflix Original delivers the kind of romantic comedy audiences once flocked to theaters to see.

Director:
Susan Johnson
With:
Lana Condor, Janel Parrish, Noah Centineo
Release Date:
Aug 17, 2018

1 hour 39 minutes

Official Site: https://www.netflix.com/title/80203147

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.

Popular on Variety

Film Review: Netflix's 'To All the Boys I've Loved Before'

Reviewed online, Los Angeles, Aug. 12, 2018. Running time: 99 MIN.

Production: A Netflix release of an Awesomeness Films, Overbrook Entertainment production. Producers: Matt Kaplan, Jordan Levin, Dougie Cash. Executive producers: Brett Bouttier, Robyn Marshall, Don Dunn, Jenny Han. Co-producers: Max Simers, Jessica Held, Kelsey Jackson, Vicki Sotheran, Megan Greydanus.

Crew: Director: Susan Johnson. Screenplay: Sofia Alvarez, based on the novel by Jenny Han. Camera (color, widescreen): Michael Fimognari. Editors: Phillip J. Bartell, Joe Klotz. Music: Joe Wong.

With: Lana Condor, Janel Parrish, Noah Centineo, Anna Cathcart, Andrew Bachelor, Trezzo Mahoro, Madeleine Arthur, Emilija Baranac, Israel Broussard, John Corbett.

More Film

  • Amanda Awards

    ‘Out Stealing Horses’ Tops Norway’s 2019 Amanda Awards

    HAUGESUND, Norway —  Hans Petter Moland’s sweeping literary adaptation “Out Stealing Horses” put in a dominant showing at Norway’s Amanda Awards on Saturday night, placing first with a collected five awards, including best Norwegian film. Celebrating its 35th edition this year, the Norwegian industry’s top film prize helped kick off the Haugesund Film Festival and [...]

  • Editorial use onlyMandatory Credit: Photo by

    Richard Williams, 'Who Framed Roger Rabbit' Animator, Dies at 86

    Renowned animator Richard Williams, best known for his work on “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” died Friday at his home in Bristol, England, Variety has confirmed. He was 86. Williams was a distinguished animator, director, producer, author and teacher whose work has garnered three Oscars and three BAFTA Awards. In addition to his groundbreaking work as [...]

  • Instinct

    Locarno Film Review: 'Instinct'

    Now that “Game of Thrones” has finally reached its conclusion, releasing its gifted international ensemble into the casting wilds, will Hollywood remember just what it has in Carice van Houten? It’s not that the statuesque Dutch thesp hasn’t been consistently employed since her startling 2006 breakout in Paul Verhoeven’s “Black Book,” or even that she’s [...]

  • Good Boys Movie

    Box Office: 'Good Boys' Eyes Best Original Comedy Opening of 2019

    Universal’s “Good Boys” is surpassing expectations as it heads toward an estimated $20.8 million opening weekend at the domestic box office following $8.3 million in Friday ticket sales. That’s well above earlier estimates which placed the film in the $12 million to $15 million range, marking the first R-rated comedy to open at No. 1 [...]

  • Pedro Costa’s 'Vitalina Varela' Wins at

    Pedro Costa’s 'Vitalina Varela' Triumphs at Locarno Film Festival

    The 72nd Locarno Film Festival drew to a close Saturday with Portuguese auteur Pedro Costa’s dark and detached film “Vitalina Varela” coming away with several awards together with superlatives from segments of the hardcore cinephile crowd, including jury president Catherine Breillat. In announcing the Golden Leopard prize for the film, as well as best actress [...]

  • Vitalina Varela

    Locarno Film Review: 'Vitalina Varela'

    Frequently beautiful compositions and the theatrical use of a fierce kind of artifice have long been the hallmarks of Portuguese auteur Pedro Costa, regarded by a small but influential group of aesthetes as one of the great filmmakers of our era. For those in tune with his vision, the director’s films offer an exciting lesson [...]

  • Notre dame

    Locarno Film Review: 'Notre dame'

    Not to be too cynical about it, but might the recent horrific fire in Paris’ cathedral attract audiences to a film in which the gothic gem plays a major role? It’s likely a wiser marketing strategy than promoting the unrelenting silliness of Valerie Donzelli’s oh-so-kooky comedy “Notre dame,” the writer-director-star’s return to contemporary Paris following [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content