Is the romantic comedy dead? The Hollywood Reporter thought so when it wrote its obituary in 2013, declaring “gone are the days when light comedic pairings like ‘When Harry Met Sally’…or ‘50 First Dates‘ reliably packed multiplexes”. But Netflix wholeheartedly disagrees, having funded nearly a dozen original rom-coms in 2018 alone. One of its latest feature films, “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before”, which was released in August, has impressed critics and audiences alike with its portrayal of a Korean-American teenager, her romantic entanglements and her relationship with her family. Based on a novel of the same name by the author Jenny Han, the film has been praised for its independent heroine, its enlightened male lead and its representation of Korean-American characters.
What actually happens in the film?
Wordy title aside, “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” is actually quite a straightforward story. It follows Lara Jean Covey (Lana Condor), a high-school junior, as she navigates relationships with her two sisters (below), her widower father, and of course, with her competing love interests. One day her younger sister finds – and sends – five love letters that Lara Jean has written and hidden in a box. Surprise, surprise, they’re to all the boys she loved before. When Lara Jean finds out, she’s worried she’ll be socially ostracised. Fortunately, only two of the letters’ recipients are a) straight and b) living in her town: Josh, her older sister’s ex-boyfriend, and Peter Kavinsky (Noah Centineo), the surprisingly sensitive popular kid. Peter wants to make his ex-girlfriend jealous and promises to keep Lara Jean’s letter a secret if they pretend to date. It’s soon clear that he and Lara Jean have feelings for one another – but their budding romance is threatened by mean-girl antics and sisterly miscommunication.
It won’t be a spoiler to say that the leads get their happy ending, at least temporarily. The original book is the first in a trilogy and an adaptation of the sequel seems to be in the works.
What are people saying about it?
The Guardian’s reviewer described “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” as “genuinely revelatory” and the “best Netflix Original to have first premiered on the platform”. NPR’s culture blog was equally complimentary: “the film is precisely what it should be: pleasing and clever, comforting and fun and romantic.”
Meanwhile, Peter has been admired across the internet for his sensitivity, intelligence and attractiveness, becoming the subject of compatibility quizzes and fawning tweets, ranging from the sweet (“EVERY GIRL DESERVES THEIR OWN PETER KAVINSKY”) to the sad (“to all the boys ive loved before, why aren’t u peter kavinsky?????”) to the sex-obsessed (“Here to announce that I too am a proud member of the thirsty old bitches for Peter Kavinsky club”). Netflix has capitalised on this online obsession, changing their US Twitter bio to read that they are “now a Peter Kavinsky stan”, or superfan, account.
Why is everyone so obsessed?
“To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” is based on a story by a Korean-American woman and Asian-Americans dominate its cast. Asian-Americans are not used to seeing people like themselves represented on screen, and definitely not in a rom-com, so this is a big deal.
Its hero Peter combines hotness and wokeness – a package that is especially attractive to progressively minded teens and 20-somethings. The film takes a nuanced approach to race and racism. While watching the classic John Hughes rom-com “Sixteen Candles”, Peter says that he thinks the depiction of Long Duk Dong, an exchange student, is racist. Lara Jean agrees but does not allow that fact to get in the way of her enjoyment of the film.
Why has Netflix decided to resurrect the rom-com?
People love rom-coms. In the past year, nearly two-thirds of Netflix’s 125 million accounts watched a romantic film. So it makes sense for Netflix to devote a significant portion of its $8bn content budget to giving people more of what they like.
But viewers want more from their rom-coms than they did in the 1980s, 1990s or early noughties. Bridget Jones’s obsession with finding a man to sweep her off her feet is grating to modern ears, while other films promote the idea that every love affair has to involve some kind of manipulation (“Pretty Women) or have a murky relationship with consent (think of the stalkerish cue-cards in “Love Actually” or the dating-for-money scheme in “10 Things I Hate About You”). As for Woody Allen films, let’s not go there.
Nowadays, many writers and producers are subverting these tired tropes. On both big and small screens, we’re seeing more sex-positivity (“How to Be Single”), a move away from all-white casts (“Master of None”, “The Big Sick”), complicated romances (“Obvious Child”), and gay characters (“Alex Strangelove” – another Netflix production).
Of course, Netflix and other creators aren’t reinventing the rom-com out of the goodness of their own heart. The box office successes of “Crazy Rich Asians” and “Black Panther” show that there’s money to be made in releasing films with characters from diverse backgrounds.
The Japanese brand Yakult would agree. “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” features a “Korean yogurt smoothie”, which astute viewers identified as a bottle of Yakult. Shares of Yakult’s stock have increased by 2.6% since the film’s release, partially mitigating the 6% drop in stock prices since the beginning of the year.
I’m not an American teenager. Will I enjoy “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before”?
You won’t watch the film for innovative plot twists or incredible writing (which is particularly strained during argumentative scenes), but it is ultimately a well-made cinematic confection, perfect for a Sunday afternoon or quiet night in. You can watch it with almost anyone: your parents, siblings and friends will all find something to relate to, from the sweet romance to Lara Jean’s realistic mix of vulnerability and self-assurance. Who knows, after 99 minutes, you might be joining the ranks of Peter Kavinsky stans.
To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before is available on Netflix