Some movies are important in a big way. Like Crazy Rich Asians, a movie with the ambition and nuance to be culturally important just as it is lavish and bombastic. Then there are movies that feel important in a smaller scale. These movies are like To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, a movie that delivers its importance in simple and subtle ways.
I feel that To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before (abbreviated to TATBILB from now on) ought to be a companion piece to Crazy Rich Asians. The reason is obvious: both movies star Asian-Americans set against the largely unchanged landscape of romantic comedies. Yet both uses the Asian-American context very differently. In Crazy Rich Asians, it is to juxtapose traditional Asian mentality against the liberalised immigrants. In TATBILB, it is about the slow, quiet removal of racial lenses and filters.
But perhaps I shouldn’t add too much pressure for TATBILB to please. The movie is, first and foremost, a teen romantic comedy with all the trappings of one, and ought to be viewed as such. It is to be enjoyed as one would, guiltily or earnestly, enjoy something intrinsically made to please and ease. But it’s the little things it does that becomes subtly subversive, and makes it a lot cleverer than it appears.
TATBILB is a Netflix-exclusive flick adapted from the 2014 young adult romance novel by Jenny Han. It follows Lara Jean Covey (Lana Condor), a half-Korean, half-Caucasian teenage girl living in Not-Really-Determined Town, USA. Shy and a little reclusive, Lara Jean is dealing with a variety of growing pains – a fear of driving, a close-knit elder sister moving away, and coming to terms with her mother’s passing. There’s also the matter of Josh, her major crush who is also, unfortunately, her elder sister’s boyfriend.
To cope with this, Lara Jean writes a love letter to Josh, which she stows away with the four other love letters to All the Boys She’s Loved Before. “I write a letter when I have a crush so intense that I don’t know what else to do,” she tells the audience.
What follows is a rom com plot of typical proportions. Unbeknownst to her, Lara Jeans’ letters are all sent out, opening the floodgates of embarrassing problems she isn’t equipped to deal with. One of the recipient of her letters is Peter (Noah Centineo), the high-school star lacrosse player. He offers her a deal: they could both pretend to date. That way, Lara Jean could avoid an awkward confrontation with Josh, and Peter could reawaken the interest of his ex-girlfriend, the mean girl Gen (Emilija Baranac).
Yes, the premise is cute and silly. Yes, it’s all in favour of doling out love dodecahedrons and awkward misunderstandings and life-affirming epiphanies. But the movie works by being charming, and by rooting the film in an indie-feeling groundedness. It’s 10 Things I Hate About You by way of Lady Bird, if that makes any sense.
It will be an irresistibly comfortable movie to cuddle up to, but TATBILB does offer more than familiar fuzzy feelings. The performances are great, for one. Condor brings with her all the quintessential elements of a great teen-rom-com protagonist – smart yet adorkable, shy but not unsure of herself. Perhaps wondrously, the movie treats her Korean-American heritage as nonchalantly as possible. It’s not a key component of her characteristics, nor does it ever become an issue, but it exists enough to colour her world. It’s in the conversations she has about home-cooked Korean food, or the familial bond with her two sisters.
Then there’s Noah Centineo’s Peter, who subverts most of the typical jock leads of teen-roms. At first glance he appears bog standard – snarky, commands the centre of attention and dates the hottest girl in school. Here, though, he’s genuinely sensitive. He listens, he cares, and he’s not afraid to open up. When Lara Jean and Peter’s relationship deepens, it’s because he’s done the legwork. It makes it all the more honest and heartfelt.
It’s easy to let the strength of its cast and writing carry the movie, yet TATBILB has an attention to detail that’s worthy of praise, particularly its use of the background to expand its characters. When we’re first introduced to Lara Jean, her room is a mess of strewn clothes and junk, yet her romance novel bookshelf is meticulously neat, indicating her romantic tendencies. In one scene, we see individual family portraits that are painted instead of studio-shot photos, belying a more artful, quirky household.
Occasionally the scenes are framed brilliantly, like how a particular argument between two characters are set with a wooden beam in between them, setting them on separate planes of thought. In another shot, a character is framed between two goals – a literal “goal” to approach. It adds more personality to the film, and makes it feel fresher than the rest of the rom-com crop. TATBILB is director Susan Johnson’s second film. I’m curious to see what she’ll bring next.
It’s unlikely that this movie will be a cultural and media juggernaut that Crazy Rich Asians is setting out to be. But I’d argue that it’s just as significant – namely in letting an Asian-American teen carry the film. It’s not just so that Asian-American teenage girls can feel like they can be the protagonist in their own romantic tale. It’s that her race and heritage isn’t the point. There’s no glowing neon arrows pointing at it, begging for attention. She’s absolutely normal, and that becomes rather extraordinary.