Lately, critics and the people who make movies have argued that we’re on the verge of a romcom revival, which happens to be right on time. It’s been a while since I’ve seen a romantic comedy I really loved. The genre is well-worn, frequently dull, occasionally sexist, and it’s a lot easier to screw up a romcom than to make a good one. But if this trend brings us more films like To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before and talent as endearing as Lana Condor and Noah Centineo, I might start to believe in it.
Romcom fans will recognize the formula: a passive protagonist with big dreams is egged on into taking a chance on love by an unexpected and disarmingly charming ally. But To All the Boys is a joy to watch and rises to the top of a cliché genre on the strength of its whip-smart writing and cast.
Based on the YA novel by Jenny Han, the film follows the story of Lara Jean Covey (Condor), the middle child of three sisters, as she starts her junior year of high school. Her older sister Margot (Janel Parrish) moved to Scotland for college, and her younger sister Kitty (Anna Cathcart) is surprisingly well adjusted for a sixth grader, constantly teasing Lara Jean about never having any life plans. The girls are close, and early on in the film, it’s revealed that their mom died when Kitty was young.
Plot spoilers ahead.
Alone for the first time in high school (except for her semi-spacey best friend Chris, played by Madeleine Arthur), Lara Jean prefers to avoid the cafeteria and eat lunch in the library. She often feels invisible, without realizing that she isn’t—she gets on everyone’s nerves at the library for snacking and can’t seem to escape her high school bully (and former best friend, yikes) Genevieve (Emilija Baranac). One day, there isn’t an empty bathroom stall in the whole high school that will help her escape the quizzical looks from three boy classmates who’ve all received love letters from her in the mail. (Two other boys, who don’t go to her school, also received letters, but we don’t meet them in the film. Se...quel?)
The letters were sent without Lara Jean’s knowledge, and they were written years ago, as a way for her to sort out her feelings over these boys; Lara Jean kept all five in a secret box she hid in her room and she thought was safe from the world. She thought wrong. Suddenly, the minefield Lara Jean faces at school becomes trickier to navigate
—one of the boys who got a letter is Josh Sanderson (Israel Broussard), her next-door neighbor and Margot’s ex-boyfriend. (Before you judge, let Lara Jean explain! Once upon a time, she and Josh were just friends; it was when he started dating her sister that LJ realized her true feelings for him. And then ignored them until they withered away.) Her strategy for dealing with a hurt and confused Josh is to avoid him and deflect any lines of inquiry—and to pretend to date Peter Kavinsky (Centineo), a cute guy on the lacrosse team and another love letter recipient. (The third in-school love letter recipient is Lucas, who sweetly rebuffs Lara Jean.) The fake boyfriend idea is Peter’s way of making his ex Gen jealous.
You might be able to predict what happens next. But watching Condor and Centineo fizz with teenage emotion onscreen is what makes To All the Boys so great. Lara Jean may see herself as a fly on the wall, but played by Candor, she is bright and funny as hell, expressive and highly relatable, as well as maybe the best dressed introvert I’ve ever seen in a high school romcom. Likewise, Centineo excels in the role of the dreamy, annoying-but-you-know-you-love-it athlete; he has the type of hilarious one-liners that leave you swooning and might inspire some Peter-specific fanfic. (One involves Centineo defending the health benefits of kombucha at a party.)
The fake relationship is a gamble Lara Jean is willing to take; although she doesn’t like-like Peter anymore, fake-dating him is like a test drive for having a real boyfriend. It’s a fun if stress-inducing experiment for the perennially shy teenager, but one that invokes enthusiastic responses from Kitty and her dad (played by a long-haired John Corbett, aka AIDAN from Sex & the City), who think LJ is genuinely coming out of her shell. And maybe she is. All of these shenanigans circle an ever-important question in the All the Boys universe: Where’s the line between going through the motions and the real thing? When does it stop mattering?
It’s a familiar premise for this genre. Heath Ledger was just pretending, too, when he set out to woo Julia Stiles in 10 Things I Hate About You. And Dermot Mulroney was just a handsome escort hired by Debra Messing to make her sister’s wedding bearable—at first—in The Wedding Date. In To the Boys, the payoff is sweet, as Lara bumbles her way through social artifice and real feelings. It’s deeply rewarding to watch these teens figure out how much letting go of a secret is easier than living a lie.