To All The Boys I've Loved Before doesn't live up to expectations

By RUDY MALCOM | September 6, 2018

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Gage Skidmore/ CC By-sa 2.0

Actress Lana Condor plays Lara Jean Covey in Netflix’s original movie, To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before.

Actor and advocate Cynthia Nixon debated New York Governor Andrew Cuomo at their sole gubernatorial debate on Aug. 29. 

They clashed onstage in a tense and fiery contest, but their sole moment of agreement is most pertinent to this article. When asked whether she or he sought the endorsement of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio — Nixon’s friend and Cuomo’s political archnemesis — neither candidate answered.

The Sex and the City star said she was running this race on her own and didn’t need de Blasio’s backing. The Governor characterized his relationship with the Mayor as “dysfunctional.”

“I love Mayor de Blasio,” he said. “I’m sure he loves me, in a strange sort of way.” 

What Cuomo said about de Blasio is what teen romance movies would say about me if film genres could speak. 

As a Writing Seminars major, I should hate most teen romance films on principle. They are melodramatic and oversimplify human emotion. They rely on representations of nerds, emo kids and more, portraying unrealistic characters at best and promoting toxic stereotypes at worst. 

Think of the dumb, handsome jock or the commodified gay best friend. (Guess which supporting role I play in my own story. Yaaaaas, queen, you guessed it.)

But I spent middle school and high school in the closet. Watching teen romance movies served (and still serves) as the expression of my closeted fantasies. 

On the other hand, of course, vicariously living through one-dimensional, heterosexual adolescents in high-school flicks can also be a soul-crushing reminder of one’s loneliness. 

So needless to say, I loved to hate and hated to love To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before (TATBILB), which Netflix released on Aug. 17. 

Who wouldn’t want to be its protagonist? Your little sister finds the letters you’ve written to your past crushes and mails them because you’re too ~quirky~ to talk to boys. You then must peck your spin-the-bottle kiss from seventh grade in front of your big sister’s ex-boyfriend so that the latter doesn’t know you had feelings for him. 

This leads to a fake relationship with the former, who’s trying to make his ex-girlfriend (your ex-best friend) jealous. Inevitably, your pretend romance transforms into a real love story. 

Lara Jean Covey (Lana Condor) and Peter Kavinsky’s (Noah Centineo) banter melted my heart. I wanted Peter to put his hand in the back pocket of my jeans, for us to discover our feelings for one another while making out in a hot tub. 

Lara Jean’s younger sister Kitty (Anna Cathcart) was hilarious and adorable.

Better yet, TATBILB boasts an Asian-American heroine. Lara Jean is half-Korean in Jenny Han’s 2014 novel on which the film is based, whereas Condor is Vietnamese-American. And Janel Parrish, who plays her older sister Margot, is half-Chinese. 

But Asian-American actors have fewer opportunities in television and film, so at least it’s something.

Han wrote in a New York Times op-ed that one of the film’s producers told her that “as long as the actress captures the spirit of the character, age and race don’t matter.”

“I said, well, her spirit is Asian-American,” Han wrote. “That was the end of that.”

Not so fast, Jenny! Notwithstanding its cast’s feel-good performances, TATBILB has some undeniable issues.

Firstly, if I were blind, I wouldn’t know Lara Jean is Asian. I’m glad Condor got some acting experience, but I think an Asian-American spirit might run deeper than skin tone. To be honest, though, I don’t really know exactly what an Asian-American spirit is.

Yes, casting Asian-American actors normalizes their media representation, but I don’t think this veneer of diversity is enough. To me, Lara Jean is an entirely assimilated, token Asian. 

I’ll concede that the film does touch on Asian-American culture when Lara Jean’s father (John Corbett) struggles to cook his late wife’s Korean recipes, hoping to keep her memory alive. But what’s also dying in this film are otherwise undeveloped Asian traditions and identities. 

Secondly, as Vox identified, Peter’s ex-girlfriend Genevieve (Emilija Baranac) is the “vapid mean girl villain” that “was a staple of the ’90s teen movie.” She does little besides spread rumors to slut-shame Lara Jean.

Vox find this to be the movie’s only imperfection, but I think it also embodies the movie’s overall shortcoming: It’s hardly different from its ’90s counterparts.

This is apparent not only in Lara Jean’s combat boots and chokers, but in her conversations, the majority of which fail to revolve around something other than a man. 

The focus of the movie’s plot is indeed a woman’s narrative arc, but her narrative arc is boy-crazed. I can’t recall one scene in a classroom or a single moment Lara Jean spent doing homework. TATBILB loves boys a little too much for me to love it.

The film’s saving grace is that Lara Jean attributes her fear of relationships to her mother’s death; she’s vulnerable and scared of letting people in because she’s lost a loved one. 

This is no antidote, however, for the film’s flaws and should have been further explored, potentially in conversation with her two sisters. 

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