Netflix’s 2018 romantic comedy, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before was heralded as part of a rom-com resurgence that was, by all accounts, sorely needed. Based on Jenny Han’s fizzy YA novel, the adaptation did gangbuster numbers for Netflix. Alongside other movies released as part of Netflix’s “Summer of Love,” it was, as Variety reported, one of the “most viewed original films ever with strong repeat viewing.” Having seen the first film once and cried at least once during my viewing, I get it. What could’ve been a frothy, cotton-candy cloud of a rom-com turned out to be something a little more solid, thanks in part to the star turns by Lana Condor and Noah Centineo, a man that the staff of Jezebel collectively dumped in September 2018.
The first movie subverted rom-com tropes by giving its lead characters a little more complexity; Peter Kavinsky is a hot lax bro, but he’s sensitive. Lara Jean thinks she’s invisible, but actually, she’s not. Sparks fly, there are complications, and then, wouldn’t you know it, a happy ending. The not-so-nerdy girl gets the sensitive jock and everything is hunky-dory. The sequel, also based on a book by Han, considers what happens after the girl gets the guy: grappling with the actual work of what a relationship looks like outside of the snow-globe fantasies we sometimes create in our heads.
To All the Boys: P.S. I Still Love You is very much a romantic comedy and coasts a little bit on its success. The snap of the original is missing for me, but what resonates is Lara Jean’s relatability. As screenwriter Sofia Alvarez told the New York Times, this movie explores what it “means to be vulnerable once you’re actually in that relationship and dealing with the other person as opposed to just thinking about being in a relationship with them.” Peeling back the layer to reveal the gloopy core of vulnerability and its discontent means that, for me, my frustration in watching the film was not with the situations Lara Jean found herself in, but with Lara Jean herself.
Minor spoilers ahead.
When we meet Lara Jean and Peter again, they have finally transitioned their relationship out of the theoretical and into the practical: they are together, and both seem to be very happy. There are dates over cacio e pepe, paper lanterns with the lovebirds’ initials sent high into a night sky, and then, naturally, a crisis of the heart. The love letters sent out into the universe by Lara Jean’s wily younger sister, Kitty, made it so that Lara Jean and Peter are together in blissful, high-school love. But one of the letters also made its way to John Ambrose (Jordan Fisher), Lara Jean’s middle school crush who ends up volunteering at the same beautifully appointed retirement community. Conflict, and an important choice for Lara Jean, ensues.
The choice she inevitably makes will become clear to anyone watching this movie because it is a by-the-books rom-com that always favors its lead characters and their well-being. But what really works in the sequel, as it did in the first film, is Noah Centineo, who has the louche charm of a clean-cut Pete Davidson, one who has never done cocaine and certainly hasn’t touched a pill that he wasn’t prescribed. John Ambrose, on the other hand, is the sensitive heartthrob who plays the piano when he’s sad and still has feelings for Lara Jean. What this really is, is just wish fulfillment—a fantasy that plays out in Lara Jean’s favor, though she is frustratingly incapable of seeing that everything will work out.
Slightly more heartbreaking is watching Lara Jean’s insecurities play out. As she plainly points out to Peter after a petty fight, she never read the girlfriend handbook. I hate to break it to her, but such an item doesn’t exist. Modern dating rhetoric for anyone of any age dictates that there is a specific way a woman should act when they’re in a relationship, and also what that relationship should look like. Though I know that this is a work of fiction engineered specifically to create this sort of reaction in me, halfway through the film, I wanted to reach through my computer screen and drag her to a corner to yell that there is no script and that she should just for one small moment, allow herself to step out of her brain and feel a sliver of happiness—to look at what is in front of her face and to just be chill.
Lara Jean’s central conflict is not with the men in her life, but really with herself—a thread that I wish the film had teased out more. Even though she isn’t quite the misfit she’s cast herself to be in her brain, shaking that mindset is difficult when it is the only world you’ve lived in. Insecurity breeds something that looks close to indifference or, more likely, the panicked need to tend every imaginable fire, for fear that one day, they will all go out. This sense of personal uncertainty is the most realistic part of this movie.
The trouble lies when Lara Jean starts to cram herself into the shape of what she thinks a girlfriend should be instead of what she actually is—a relatively normal teenager with the sort of mind that works in absolutes. The central conflict of this sequel is, of course, that Lara Jean’s own self-doubt about her own worth causes issues: Peter is a cad with a heart of gold, a perfect internet boyfriend because he’s both hot and also sensitive. “Lara Jean, when there was an actual choice, I picked you,” Peter tells our heroine, in a moment that is touching but also extremely infuriating to watch.
Nothing is forever, as the old saying goes, and love, especially of the sort depicted in this sequel, is especially ephemeral. The sequel fails to capture the giddy magic of the first, in part because the success of the first was so astronomical. To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before was heralded as the first entry into a rom-com resurgence that never really came to fruition. Watching someone succeed is much less entertaining than watching that same person fail over and over again.
To All the Boys: P.S. I Still Love You is currently streaming on Netflix.