Movies

Return to Sender

The new To All the Boys made me glad it’s the last one.

a young man and woman cuddle on the couch
Noah Centineo and Lana Condor in To All the Boys: Always and Forever. Katie Yu/Netflix

When To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before debuted on Netflix in 2018, it was credited by some outlets with helping to revitalize the romantic-comedy genre. The film, which was adapted from Jenny Han’s book of the same name, was just as sweet as its pastel packaging suggested. It was such a hit that a sequel, 2020’s To All the Boys: P.S. I Still Love You, quickly followed, and now one Valentine’s Day later, the final film in the trilogy, To All the Boys: Always and Forever, is about to make its debut. It’s a fitting end to the series not just as a closing chapter to its protagonists’ high-school lives as they move on to college, but also as an admission that the franchise has run out of things to say.

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The first movie, in which Lara Jean (Lana Condor) and school hunk Peter (Noah Centineo) fell in real love while in a fake relationship, was enjoyable for its familiar rom-com twists and turns, while the second, in which Lara Jean and Peter navigate the ups and downs of any burgeoning relationship, felt at least relatable, if not as immediately captivating as its predecessor. Always and Forever chronicles the inevitable crisis faced by all high-school sweethearts, as each of them figures out where they’re going for college and wrestles with whether or not a long-distance relationship is sustainable. Should they just rip the band-aid off now?

Much of the suspense, as a result, comes from Lara Jean deciding what she should or shouldn’t tell Peter. An early mishap, for instance, involves Lara Jean mistakenly letting Peter think they’ve gotten into the same school and fretting over when and how to tell him it’s not the case. But there’s no real dramatic tension there, as Peter and Lara Jean are both well-adjusted and understanding of each other’s problems, and most of the conversations, when they finally do happen, resolve quickly. It’s a sign of a healthy relationship, but that doesn’t mean it’s compelling to watch.

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The best parts of the movie revolve around less college-specific problems, and a standout scene involves Lara Jean reasoning out when and how she wants to lose her virginity. The scene feels very real in a way that the rest of the movie does not, as does the subplot in which Peter’s estranged father (Henry Thomas), who Peter views as having abandoned him, tries to reconnect. Since this is the third installment of the series, we’re far enough along to care about all aspects of these characters’ lives, not just their romance, and while realism is not necessarily the goal of any rom-com, it provides a point of emotional connection—something the rest of the movie often struggles to find.

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Even outside of the movie’s admissions plot, the movie sometimes falters. This is most glaring when the series fumbles its first big attempt at acknowledging Lara Jean’s half-Korean, half-white heritage. The matter-of-factness with which her heritage has been treated has generally been one of the franchise’s strengths, and the third movie tries to change that by beginning with a trip to Korea. The trip is presented as significant—it’s Lara Jean’s first time visiting—but it’s almost immediately forgotten, abandoned for the sake of getting to Lara Jean and Peter’s romantic trials and tribulations, and the speed with which it’s brushed off feels like one of the movie’s biggest missteps.

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Though one of the movie’s big messages is that what we see in romances and romantic comedies is (usually) just the beginning of the story, by the end of Always and Forever, it feels like Lara Jean’s story has run its course. It’s ironic given the supposed takeaway, but it’s also a blessing, as there aren’t any loose ends left dangling. Even the question of whether or not Lara Jean and Peter’s relationship actually will make it through four years of long-distance dating feels like a foregone conclusion given how much of the series has been spent convincing viewers that they’re meant to be. That’s not to say that the movie is unsatisfying—Always and Forever boasts all of the Instagram-filter-style color grading and absurdly beautiful sets that fans have come to expect, as well as a soundtrack of suitably romantic pop songs—but it’s the last bite of a meal you’re already full from. You’re used to the flavors, and there’s nothing in the dish that surprises you anymore. If comfort is your aim, look no further, but to keep any franchise or genre alive, sometimes you need some fresh ingredients.

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