To All the Boys I've Loved Before
“For those who say To All the Boys is trodden territory, I ask: Trodden territory for who?”
Title: To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before
Director: Susan Johnson 👩🏼🇺🇸
Writer: Sofia Alvarez 👩🏼🇺🇸 based on the book by Jenny Han 👩🏻🇺🇸
Reviewed by Li 👩🏻🇺🇸
To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before has been an Internet sensation. Cosmopolitan calls it “absolutely irresistible”, stores are selling out of Yakult drinks, and even critics on Rotten Tomatoes—78% of whom are male—happily hand the film a 95% fresh rating.
It’s all deserved. The film embraces the fake dating trope in a way that other critics might pooh pooh, but the thing is, To All the Boys is brand-spanking new in its own way. It doesn’t do the same things as She’s All That (1999), 10 Things I Hate About You (1999), or The Wedding Date (2005)—movies that keep cropping up as tiresome comparisons in reviews. Maybe it's because I'm an Asian American woman, or maybe it's not, but Netflix’s most recent hit resonated for me in a way that the former never did.
So let’s look at what's new about this movie. Plenty of themes are explored under the comforting guise of the fake dating trope. Lara Jean (Lana Condor) comes to grips with a deceased mother, and we get a chance to look at the ways teenagers deal with heavy issues like grief or parental abandonment. Sisterhood is exemplified through realistic emotions of jealousy, frustration, and forgiveness. And interracial romance is touched upon, if not particularly explored. But the fact remains, that by mere virtue of bringing in another culture, the perspective of the entire film is shifted. Suddenly, To All the Boys feels relevant to a demographic that looks nothing like the audiences of the genre’s heyday, in the 90s and early aughts. Almost half of Gen Z—teenagers currently younger than 19—are non-white in the United States. And more than a third of Gen Z Americans have dated outside their own ethnicity.
For those who say To All the Boys is trodden territory, I ask: Trodden territory for who? Certainly not its young target audience.
Does it pass the Bechdel Test? YES
Women are front-and-center in movie, and behind the curtain, the talent is too. Lara Jean commands the camera and supporting characters of her two sisters and ex-best friend flesh out the movie’s cast. The only men who appear with any regularity are the romantic lead, Peter (Noah Centineo), as well as the secondary love interest, Josh (Israel Broussard).
Does the narrative focus on a man? Sure. A heterosexual romance is the heartbeat of this rom-com, but female relationships are explored too. We see the yearning of a daughter for her passed mother; the complicated yet affirming bonds between sisters; or the painfully coming-of-age realization that your childhood friend can feel like a stranger after a mere summer away. The authenticity of this confusing time feels perfectly captured, driving home the fact that To All the Boys was made by women, for women, and told through a majority-female cast. That’s nothing to turn our noses up at.
To All the Boys takes a relatively color-blind approach to characterization, which can be an overly simplistic view of reality. But when you factor in that this is meant to be a simple, feel good movie, it bothers me less.
As for the criticism for author Jenny Han (who is Korean American) penning four white love interests and one black love interest for an Asian American lead, I can’t find the energy to care. Should there be more romantic roles for Asian American men? Of course. But as with the controversy surrounding Crazy Rich Asians (2018), I'm not going to be angry about one movie that fails to fix an entire system of misrepresentation in media, single-handedly.
Rather, I'd like to focus on the positive. As mentioned above, there is definitely something to be said for a non-white romantic lead, even if said role is being shaped by a director and screenwriter who are both white. The overall cast feels white, too, but its main characters consist of a biracial family. Lara Jean—a Korean and white character whose actress, Lana Condor, is of Vietnamese descent—does retain some cultural cues. Seeing Lara Jean and Peter share Yakult drinks might feel minor, but it goes a long way. Those little beige drinks with the iconic red foil caps mean so much more than a bit of clever product placement—their normalization reverberates with bone-deep affirmation, of being validated for the foreign or “disgusting” things we eat.
I do think a little more nuance could have been put into the matter of this being an interracial relationship. Even born and raised in the United States, I've had my share of minor culture clashes when meeting the parents of white boyfriends; tiny moments of disconnect, such as the unfamiliarity of employing hugs as greetings. That said, To All the Boys centers on a biracial experience, so perhaps I'm just projecting too much. But hey, the fact that I even can project? That’s kind of awesome.
Bonus for LGBTQ: +0.25
Of the five “boys Lara Jean has loved”, one is Lucas, played by Trezzo Mahoro. The character is minor but positive. Lucas is sweet, kind, a little bit nerdy, and he also turns out to be gay. He doesn’t fall into any stereotypes about black men, and furthermore, I appreciate that the LGBTQ role went to a person of color, with dark skin to boot. Cisgender white men have had the lion's share of gay roles over the last number of years, and it's about time we start to look at other identities within this brilliantly diverse community.
Mediaversity Grade: B+ 4.42/5
Bring it on, Netflix. The streaming service has been ushering in some exciting new content, and between The Incredible Jessica James (2017), or more recently, Set It Up (2018), I can't wait to see how they continue to experiment in a genre that has let itself grow stagnant. There are stories yet to be told through the romantic comedy, and everyone, not just straight cis white people, should get a crack at finding love.