I would rather not admit the number of times I watched She’s All That and Love Don’t Cost A Thing during my teenage years. These movies are predictable and contain so many tropes that they almost seem like rom-com parodies. Each story involves a high-school couple that begin dating under false pretenses.
She’s All That is problematic in that a relationship is formed between Zack and Laney as part of a wager. Laney has no idea that she’s the subject of Zack’s bet with his jock bros.
In Love Don’t Cost A Thing, Paris and Alvin are both aware of the disingenuous foundation of their relationship. However, it’s still problematic in the sense that Alvin pays Paris to be his pretend-girlfriend. But of course, the two ultimately fall in love before the credits roll.
Having addressed each movie’s flaws, they’re both undeniably entertaining and certainly fodder for repeated viewings by bored teenagers scrolling through the channel guide.
Before I go any further down the rabbit hole of yesteryear’s rom-coms, my reason for referencing these two movies is that they offer context for the film that I actually want to discuss which is To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before.
Susan Johnson directed the critically-acclaimed Netflix original film. Sofia Alvarez penned the screenplay as an adaptation of Jenny Han’s novel of the same title. The romantic leads in this movie enter into a relationship that they both expect to be fruitful.
But neither expects it to be permanent.
Lara Jean hopes to quell an embarrassing situation after the private love letters that she wrote are surreptitiously mailed to the respective subjects. She has no idea how it happened. But she agrees to date Peter to avoid confronting her feelings about Josh (which I won’t spoil, but will merely say are quite complicated).
Peter’s main motivation for dating Lara Jean is to make his ex-girlfriend jealous. Both protagonists are aware of the insincerity of their relationship and collaborate in creating a contract that establishes the terms of their partnership.
However, with this being a rom-com, there are roadblocks along the route to their desired outcomes. (Cue scenes of Peter and Kitty, Lara Jean’s sister, making jokes about LJ’s subpar driving).
As an audience, we are fully aware that hijinks will ensue and the couple’s plan will go awry. However, this movie still has enough surprises and fresh spins on a familiar story arc that it is supremely enjoyable. I won’t divulge any plot revelations, but I will applaud Johnson’s deft direction and Alvarez’s creation of memorable dialogue from her personal experiences and playwright’s imagination.
Moreover, Johnson has also explained the resonant impact that particular moments have to her life. For example, the conflict between Lara Jean’s fear of expressing her romantic feelings and her affinity for love stories.
The duo does an excellent job of developing characters with whom the audience inevitably falls in love. In addition to the meticulous characterization, this movie also exhibits fantastic cinematography (aesthetically pleasing and well-shot) and a well-curated soundtrack. These elements along with smooth film editing techniques produce moments and images that will live forever in rom-com lore.
Johnson and Alvarez’s creative instincts combined with the cast’s excellent performances are the main reasons for this film’s success. Lana Condor and Noah Centineo’s on-screen chemistry is tremendous, and both are adept at alternating between comedic and dramatic moments.
The supporting performances are also crucial, especially those of John Corbett, Janel Parrish, and Anna Cathcart, who play Lara Jean’s father and sisters respectively.
Like its high school rom-com predecessors, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before will likely circulate for years given its rewatchability. However, unlike its predecessors, it’s hard to imagine anyone taking issue with how this sweet love story unfolds.
It offers a brief metacommentary on the rom-com and blazes a trail for future genre contemporaries. The former makes the film self-aware and the latter makes it an instant-classic. Along with the next film in my top-five, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before was a linchpin of Netflix’s wonderful “Summer of Love.”
In case you missed it, check out my introduction to the Rom-Com Renaissance.