Perhaps most importantly, the movie follows a biracial Asian American teen protagonist in a genre that largely stars white actors.
As Lara Jean, Lana Condor plays a kind of Molly Ringwald archetype: A complex girl whose classmates, love interests and grownups underestimate her. In her voiceovers we hear the things they can’t see: her insecurities, her strained relationship with a former friend turned mean girl, how badly she wants to be loved and how badly she crushes on her best friend, Josh (Israel Broussard).
Unfortunately for her, Josh is dating her older sister, Margot (Janel Parrish).
Eventually, her little sister intervenes in her romantic life, sending out the love letters Lara Jean wrote to five guys she’s had a crush on throughout her life that they were never meant to see.
One of them was returned. Another went to a boy Lara Jean liked during her freshman year but who is gay. One went unaccounted for until the movie’s credits.
When Josh receives her passionate letter, he’s surprised by her interest and tries to confront her for not telling him. Lara Jean tries to keep him as far away as possible to show him she doesn’t feel that way about him anymore (even though she does).
Another one of her letter recipients is Peter (Noah Centineo), the newly single popular guy who used to date Lara Jean’s bully. At first, he’s quick to turn her down, but their makeshift meet-cute becomes an opportunity for them both. Peter wants to make his ex jealous, and Lara Jean sees it as a way to convince Josh she doesn’t have feelings for him. They set up a contract to fake date each other, with stipulations on what they can or won’t do.
But this is love after all, and nothing ever, ever goes as planned. Yet “To All The Boys I Loved Before” handles these matters of the heart very sweetly. In the same way other characters underestimated Lara Jean, she underestimates Peter, assuming there wasn’t much more to him than his popular persona.
In one adorable scene, Peter tells Lara Jean that he drove to the specialty grocery store to find the Korean yogurt drink she likes. She recognizes the gesture as an indication that he truly does care for her. The small gesture is one that resonates with anyone who has had to make a pilgrimage for comfort food not sold in most grocery stores.
While we hear most of Lara Jean’s thoughts in voiceover, the movie also includes a handful of her daydream fantasies. One recurring fantasy involves imaginary versions of Josh and Peter showing up in her bedroom to talk with her about her doubts about dating them. It’s a clever way to draw out her mixed feelings without hurting the real boys because she’s unsure of what to say next.
The movie isn’t just about Lara Jean and her crushes. It’s also about her family: Her dad (John Corbett) is very much a part of her life, as are her two sisters. Her crushes on guys may be the movie’s main focus, but she’s also dealing with the death of her mother, Margot going off to college in Scotland and her dad trying to give her the sex talk before the school ski trip. All are good reasons to cringe or cry and take a break from all the boys.
For being a feel-good romantic comedy about high schoolers, “To All The Boys I Loved Before” takes the concerns and feelings of its protagonist seriously. We empathize with her because perhaps we’ve been in those awkward situations of liking someone you’re not supposed to or liking someone who didn’t like you back. However, the movie doesn’t play her situation for tragedy. Her school career isn’t over because of a few romantic missteps. She’s coming into her own while learning to love others.
Crushes don’t always have to hurt if you learn how to deal with them, but that’s a lesson that may take longer than four years of high school to learn.