With “To All the Boys: Always and Forever,” Netflix wraps its epistolary teen-angst trilogy in such a way that those who’ve been following along since the beginning should appreciate: with a letter. What began as a high-concept high school rom-com has gently matured over two and a half years into a surprisingly low-drama look at the questions 21st-century teens ask themselves about love: How does a couple resolve simple differences? What if they don’t both get accepted to the same university? And when is the right time for the first time? Impressively enough, Lara Jean (Lana Condor) and Peter (Noah Centineo) still haven’t taken that step. Turns out, they’re waiting for marriage — just maybe not their own.
Keep in mind, what seems relatively low-drama to audiences certainly doesn’t feel that way to Lara Jean, the college-bound senior who has already spent two movies trying to decide which guy was right for her. Now she knows, and the stresses have shifted over to making that relationship work, no matter what obstacles life throws at them. Peter, for his part, is more faithful than a Saint Bernard, so the wild card is Stanford: He’s been admitted, and Lara Jean is still waiting to hear.
Spoiler alert: She doesn’t get in. And in a very movie-contrivance kind of way, she accidentally leads Peter to believe that she did, raising the question of how she’ll backtrack that slip after he’s already taken her out to celebrate and gushed about their glorious future together on the same campus. Time for Lara Jean to start looking into her plan Bs, and thinking about trying to transfer over to Stanford in her sophomore year (a relatively common temptation among high school sweethearts — and something this faithful film critic did, only to split up two years later).
For someone just tuning in to the series, the issue of how the couple will survive attending separate colleges hardly seems to merit its own movie, and yet, in some ways, this is the most practical entry in the trilogy for teenage audiences. The previous two films were firmly entrenched in the genre of adolescent wish fulfillment, and director Michael Fimognari (a horror-movie DP who took over helming duties for the second installment) seemed to focus on making that film’s swoony scenes as iconic as possible. He created larger-than-life stagings of key moments in their relationship — like lighting sky lanterns in the park or returning Peter’s locket in front of the jellyfish tank at the aquarium — potentially giving ordinary teens unreal expectations for their own inevitably awkward first steps in love.
“Always and Forever” addresses that to a degree, reuniting Lara Jean and Peter for a movie night (immediately following her spring-break getaway to Seoul, South Korea, which injects a globe-trotting glamour into things from the get-go). She chooses “Say Anything,” and they cuddle up in front of her laptop to watch the boombox scene, each wearing a wireless AirPod in one ear — the movie’s clever way of marketing the Netflix experience (over the fuddy-duddy habit of actually going to the movies) as a vital component of young romance. Faithful viewers will recall Peter being a fairly astute critic of “Sixteen Candles” (which they watched on a laptop in the first film), but now, he’s confronted with Lara Jean’s analysis that, in her words, “We are a terrible rom-com couple.”
She’s putting a lot of pressure on Peter to live up to the genre they both inhabit, so credit screenwriter Katie Lovejoy (new to the series) for putting Lara Jean’s expectations in perspective. The somewhat control-freakish protagonist wants for her and Peter to have a meet-cute and their own song and a happily ever after, stressing when anything comes along to challenge her idea of the perfect union. But the beauty of finding your soul mate isn’t avoiding conflict; it’s having someone to support you when conflict arises. And it will.
As John Corbett (a steady voice of support as Lara Jean’s dad, and the undercover dreamboat of the trilogy) puts it, “You can’t save a relationship by not growing.” To the series’ credit, Lara Jean and Peter have grown, both emotionally and physically. It’s somewhat disconcerting how much more adult they now appear: Suggesting a goofy/hunky Brendan Fraser more than ever, Centineo has filled out, more frat boy than prom king, while Condor can bring her own strength to the character’s growing self-confidence.
Incidentally, the big payoff of this film isn’t what becomes of Lara Jean and Peter’s fates, but getting to see the supporting cast blossom around her. There’s more of big sis Margot (Janel Parrish), whose encouragement for Lara Jean to attend NYU opens yet another avenue of temptation. Discovering boys, fiercely independent younger sibling Kitty (Anna Cathcart) sparks up a long-distance thing with a Korean kid she meets in Seoul. And Dr. Covey finally proposes to neighbor Trina (Sarayu Blue, whose pragmatic, Patricia Clarkson-like personality is a welcome addition to family discussions).
In many ways, by poaching material from the second novel for the first movie, 2018’s “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” took Lara Jean’s story where it needed to go. The sequels have been unnecessary but not unappreciated, and this one gives fans a chance to spend more time with the couple (even if some of us may question whether she chose the right guy). “P.S. I Still Love You” rival John Ambrose isn’t even mentioned in this movie, although this tertiary chapter hasn’t forgotten about the confessional letters that spawned the franchise in the first place.
Now it’s Lara Jean’s turn to receive a love note, and if I had to guess, I’d wager it was penned by the ghost-writing heroine in another Netflix drama, “The Half of It,” since it’s way too perfect to have come from the person who signed it here. But we’ll save theories of a Netflix Teen Movie Expanded Universe for another time. This film’s meant to close the loop on one of the streamer’s most popular originals while leaving the door ajar for more — propped open by a big pink couch — should the fans demand it.