On the heels of “Parasite’s” history-making Oscar win, it’s hard to imagine that just 18 months earlier, Hollywood had a crazy rich awakening. Although Asians had long been present in American movies, they were rarely treated as central characters — and even less often as romantic leads. And then suddenly that summer, 2018’s Singapore-set “Crazy Rich Asians” showed that audiences weren’t as hung up on race as the studios seem to have thought.
The first movie to benefit from this overdue eureka moment was Netflix’s already-in-the-can “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before,” a more-honest-than-not look at the awkward missteps of adolescent love, as seen from a shy girl’s point of view. When it came to casting Vietnam-born America-raised actor Lana Condor as the film’s endearingly inexperienced heroine, the producers took their cues from Jenny Han’s novel — the first in a popular trilogy about a romantic neophyte named Lara Jean, of half-Korean, half-European descent. To the company’s credit, Netflix had never subscribed to the conservative idea that American audiences only watch movies about white characters directed by white men. The service had the data to suggest otherwise, and “To All the Boys” went on to become the second-most-streamed original movie on Netflix that year.
Now, this is where Netflix starts to think like a Hollywood studio: As soon as execs realized they had a hit on their hands, they greenlit not one but two sequels to be shot back-to-back in which Lara Jean (still played by Condor) continues to untangle the mess her little sister Kitty (Anna Cathcart) made by postmarking a series of soul-baring letters that Lara Jean had written to the five guys over whom she’d swooned in her short 16 years on Earth. (“Love” seems far too strong a word for such unrequited yearning.) At the end of “To All the Boys,” Lara Jean winds up landing Peter Kavinsky (Noah Centineo), the popular jock she’d only been pretending to date, but just before the credits roll, she hears back from her very first crush, John Ambrose — represented by an ultra-preppy actor.
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Out just in time for Valentine’s Day 2020, Netflix’s “To All the Boys: P.S. I Still Love You” picks up as if no time has passed. Peter and Lara Jean are now officially boyfriend and girlfriend, and since she has no experience in this department, Lara Jean is understandably intimidated. Instead of showing up at her door with flowers, John Ambrose politely writes her back (DP-turned-director Michael Fimognari, who takes over helming duties for Susan Johnson, has recast John Ambrose with a dreamy new actor, Jordan Fisher, choosing someone of color this time around). So, at just the moment “happily ever after” might normally begin — although how many of us really wind up happily marrying the first person we date? — Lara Jean is presented with two options, where she’s never had so much as one before.
If “To All the Boys” was a frank and contemporary spin on the teenage rom-com, then “P.S. I Still Love You” is pure fan service. (At the movie’s Los Angeles premiere, a very vocal crowd expressed their approval and surprise on cue, as when Peter appears at Lara Jean’s door with flowers, looking just like John Ambrose had at the end of the previous movie, or later, when he gives her a locket for Valentine’s Day.) The sequel’s all about Lara Jean getting over the insecurity of dating the Big Man on Campus, knowing that he used to do all the same things — and more — with her ex-best friend Gen (Emilija Baranac).
Whereas the first movie felt modern (Lara Jean might have sent those letters via snail mail, but she still had to cope with the 21st-century challenge of being slut-shamed around school when a hot tub make-out video went viral), this squeaky-clean follow-up would have felt awfully square had it come out anytime in the last half-century: It makes everything from “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” to “Thirteen” look like Larry Clark’s “Kids” by comparison.
Granted, Lara Jean is nervous that Peter will expect her to have S-E-X, but it doesn’t deal with the issue in a realistic way (as one amateur reviewer crudely put it on Amazon.com, “He is a guy so yes, stop asking”). Still, Lara Jean seems less concerned about the relationship moving too fast than she is with managing her jealousy: “For every first I was having with him,” she realizes, Peter had already crossed that threshold with Gen before — which might be true of baby stuff like holding hands and kissing and eating out at an Italian restaurant (“classic Kavinsky,” Gen gloats), but just goes to show what a lame partner Lara Jean would be: She has no imagination, and no capacity to steer their relationship in a different direction. Meanwhile, she’s actively looking for faults in Peter to justify her feelings for John Ambrose, who’d moved away but is now back in town and volunteering at the same retirement home she thinks will look good on her college applications.
The trouble with “P.S. I Still Love You” is that nearly all the reasons that Lara Jean makes such a refreshingly different romantic lead are contained in the earlier film, and here, she’s reduced to a version of the passive Disney princess, trying to decide between two dudes who both think she’s swell. But “The Philadelphia Story” this ain’t, even if audiences are sure to be torn between #TeamPeter and #TeamJohn (Fisher certainly gives the goofy Centineo a run for his money in the charm department). Besides, it’s still infinitely better than the template that’s overtaken young-love movies lately: namely, doomed romances in which one or both of the characters are dying of some rare disease.
Lara Jean’s situation is infinitely more relatable, even as director Fimognari ties himself in knots trying to make every scene feel iconic — none more outrageous than the March/April snowstorm that accompanies the finale. Through it all, the best thing about the “To All the Boys” movies remains the casting of Condor. While Lara Jean’s cultural heritage sets her apart from other cookie-cutter rom-com leads, it’s easy for anyone to identify with the character. And who at her age wouldn’t love to be caught between the most popular kid in school and a piano-playing, poetry-writing gentleman like John Ambrose? P.S. That’s not all she wrote. There’s still another movie to come in the series.