I gained a whole new appreciation for the book version of Jenny Han’s YA bestseller To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before while watching its Netflix adaptation (premiering on the streaming service Aug. 17). Han’s high-concept teen romance is sickly sweet and never quite believable, but in spite of its methodical plotting, it always feels like it’s the finely wrought characters and their particular quirks that drive the action.
If the novel is a child’s music box, the movie is a horror-movie version of one, full of missing pieces and creaky gearwork. The fourth high-profile Netflix rom-com in as many months (after May’s blockbuster The Kissing Booth, June’s Set It Up, and last week’s The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society), All the Boys is the latest project to support the growing perception that the streaming site is after quantity, not quality, especially when it comes to its original films. First-time feature writer Sofia Alvarez’s attempt to shrink Han’s lengthy, largely internal, and culturally specific story into a 97-minute movie is, simply put, a botch job. Stilted and scattered and strangely cold in its cinematography, it’s a handsomely shot whole lotta nothin’.
Starring relative newcomer Lana Condor (who made her big-screen debut as Jubilee in X-Men: Apocalypse), All the Boys is set into motion by a mix-up. Five love letters that 16-year-old Lara Jean Covey (Condor) had written to five different guys—letters that she’d never meant to be read by anyone but their author—are mailed without her knowledge at the start of her junior year. One is returned to sender. Another is handed back kindly with the revelation of its recipient’s homosexuality. The third comes with a lot more complications: It was sent to next-door neighbor Josh (Israel Broussard), whom Lara Jean’s college-bound older sister, Margot (Janel Parrish), has just broken up with. The fourth arrives at the mailbox of Peter (Noah Centineo), a former middle school buddy of Lara Jean’s who grew up into a jock. Also freshly dumped, Peter suggests he and “L.J.” enter into a fake relationship that will make his popular ex Gen (Emilija Baranac) jealous and Lara Jean’s lingering feelings about Josh easier to avoid addressing. (If the fifth recipient is ever mentioned—he’s involved in a minor subplot in the book—I didn’t catch it during my two viewings of the movie.)
The momentum of all this plot sends All the Boys hurtling forward relentlessly and sometimes nonsensically. Freed from the pressures of real vulnerability (or so they think), Lara Jean and Peter spend time with one another to keep up appearances while slowly falling for one another. At least that’s what the movie insists. We’re given no reason to think so. Too much happens without us ever getting any sense of the lightness or lightheadedness of young love. Nor do Lara Jean’s other relationships—with her bumbling single dad (John Corbett), aforementioned prim older sister, silly younger sis (Anna Cathcart), and DGAF best friend (Madeleine Arthur)—ever feel like anything but contrivances.
It’s also frustratingly unclear what the film’s stakes are. Is Lara Jean’s problem that she’s afraid to love and possibly lose because of her mom’s years-ago passing, or just that she’s a homebody? Is her new foe, Gen, mad because Lara Jean is more callous than anyone could have believed, or is Peter’s ex just a mean girl? Late in the movie, a rumor spreads that Lara Jean and Peter had sex in a public area on a school trip, though the inexperienced girl had insisted on putting it in writing that they wouldn’t even kiss for show. Then, a video of their ostensible exhibitionism (actually just a make-out precipitated by the fake couple’s realization of their budding feelings for one another) makes the rounds on social media. The circulation of her “sex tape” is resolved lickety-split and with barely any exploration of what such a schoolwide sexual humiliation would mean for our teen protagonist. (In contrast, she actually faints like a Victorian damsel when she first realizes that one of her letters has been dispatched.) Condor’s eyes are wonderfully expressive—by turns alert and dreamy—but she doesn’t (yet?) have the presence to provide the emotional throughline that the film so desperately needs. And the mystery behind the motivation for the letters being sent (a departure from the book) is as fluffy as cotton candy, and just as weightless.
Of course, All the Boys isn’t just another The Kissing Booth. It stars an Asian American lead and features a biracial family with a white dad, a mother of Korean heritage, and hapa siblings. No doubt some viewers, especially young ones, will be comforted by seeing a family like theirs on screen. But I also cringed when Lara Jean mentions that one of her favorite movies—the one she forces her new fake boyfriend to watch pretty much immediately—is Sixteen Candles, which includes the character of Long Duk Dong, i.e., one of the most blatant examples of anti-Asian racism in all of American film.
The affection that Lara Jean and her 11-year-old sister have for Sixteen Candles appears to be an addition by the filmmakers, as the John Hughes movie is not mentioned in the book. The sisters acknowledge that Sixteen Candles is “extremely” racist, but that they love the movie anyway because of its (white) heartthrob. I don’t want to generalize: I’m sure Sixteen Candles boasts fans of all races. We all have our problematic faves. But the highly unnecessary scene dedicated to two young Asian Americans proclaiming their love for a movie that mocks their race underscored to me that neither writer Alvarez nor director Susan Johnson seem to come from an Asian background.