When To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before was first released in 2018, there was much excitement surrounding it. Based on the novel of the same name by Jenny Han, audiences couldn’t wait to finally see an Asian American female protagonist in the much-exhausted romantic comedy genre. I still remember looking forward to the film with a friend and discussing it times after watching it. The first of the trilogy is definitely the most polished, and I do believe it is a great teen romance as a stand-alone.
Like many teen films, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before employs the pretend-lovers-to-real-lovers narrative structure, and from the very first meeting of Lara Jean and Peter, we are encouraged to root for their eventual relationship. The characterisation, although at some moments stereotypical, is great! Lana Condor gives a charismatic portrayal of the young, slightly naïve, and endlessly romantic Lara Jean. Inevitably, audiences feel connected to her character and hope she finds the love she dreams of. She is also passionate and poetic, writing the love letters which eventually find all their addressees. Aside from a few questionable moments – such as her first kiss with Peter and the unfortunate crush on her sister’s boyfriend, Lara Jean is kind-hearted and aspirational character for younger teen audiences.
The central love interest Peter Kavinsky is another likeable character – although not from first impression – who makes the romance possible. Played by Noah Centineo, he is the kinder version of the popular jock archetype. Whilst slightly cliched, his kindness, and Centineo’s charm is what places Peter firmly within the hearts of audiences. There is of course, the question of whether pretend-dating to make your ex-girlfriend jealous is morally good, but no teen movie is without its faults.
The cinematography of the movie is definitely one of its strengths. Visually, TATBILB is a standout from other teen romances, with each shot carefully selected to portray the moment. There is a blue-green tint applied to all three films, heavily reminiscent of Indie films. Colour is also central, with shades of green and blue recurring in the set and clothing, creating a stylistic cohesion between the three films. The opening scene which depicts a fantasy of Lara Jean’s is set in a lush green meadow through which she walks wearing a scarlet gown. This is later brought back in the second film.
In isolation, the first movie is great – it works in terms of its narrative and characterisation and style. It is in the following two films which the narrative and characterisation begins to fall apart.
Arguably, the greatest fault of TATBILB: P.S. I Still Love You and TATBILB: Always and Forever – beside their lengthy titles – is the lack of foundation which the films’ conflicts disrupt. Even Condor’s continuing sweet portrayal cannot compensate for this. The motif of the scarlet dress returns in movie two, although this time Lara Jean wearing the dress for her first date with Peter. She narrates: “People say fairy tales aren’t real. But sometimes… happily ever after is for real.”, echoing the development from fantasy to real life since the first movie. This sets an optimistic tone for the film, but unfortunately this happy-ever-after is never actually conceived in the rest of the film.
Across the P.S. I still Love You and Always and Forever, there are scarcely two date scenes between Peter and Lara Jean, which should be the scenes emphasizing their happy relationship. However, the scenes are cut short, often in montage with little to no dialogue, and thus their suggested fairytale-esque relationship is never accounted for on-screen, before the central conflict occurs. The films move too swiftly from portraying a moment of happiness to disrupting with an obstacle – love triangle, and college decisions respectively, failing to build the couple’s relationship. There are simply not enough moments across the two films in which we see Peter and Lara Jean spend time together. This makes it difficult to cheer their relationship on, for the most we’ve seen the two together was in the first movie. In P.S. I Still Love You, I found myself preferring John Ambrose (Jordan Fisher), despite suspecting Lara Jean’s eventual loyalty to Peter.
The first movie is successful because it portrays the development of Peter’s and Lara Jean’s relationship, but the following two films fail to exhaust the true nature of their relationship. They fail to portray them a happy couple in love. P.S. I Still Love you and Forever and Always become heavily focused on the obstacles of their love, that we simply cannot reference what their love really is like in moments of happiness. This transforms the positive ending, in which they pursue a long-distance relationship to empty words of cliched teen love.