Jesus christ, this whole thing might as well be from outer space.
Here’s your premise: Laura Jean Covey has had crushes, but never romances. As an exercise in writing her emotions, she penned a love letter to each of those crushes, which she then sealed away and put in a precious box (which was a gift from her dead mother), and continued about her life, as one does. This is a reasonably healthy behaviour, honestly, the idea of expressive practice without necessarily needing to impose your feelings on other people. Then, worried about how boring her life is, her little sister steals the letters and mails them all to the appropriate boys.
Three of those boys are currently still in her life. One of them seems to be, broadly speaking, fine. One of them is her next door neighbour and her sister’s ex boyfriend. One of them is her worst enemy’s boyfriend.
And like, let’s just take a pause here and appreciate what a killer premise that is. The actual story that ensues from here is a little more linear, a little less chaotic than the opening promises with the whole sending three heartfelt confessions of love to three different potential paramours, written at three wildly different times of life and mental headspaces thing. It kind of collapses down pretty quickly, with those five potential threads becoming one thread, with all the boys in question being, it seems, not assholes about it, which is nice.
Oh and all these characters are high schoolers, I don’t know if I mentioned.
To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before is a romantic comedy set in a high school which seems to literally just be that. The whole thing has some measure of reality to it, it’s not some hyper-real near-musical or nothing, and it seems to be set in our real world, maybe a half dozen years ago, based on the apps the youths are using. There’s a couple of moments that make me go ‘wait, really?’ but then we hit a new problem when it comes to me looking at this movie.
Because this is a movie about a girl’s experience.
An American girl’s experience.
An Asian-American girl’s experience.
An Asian-American girl’s experience in a upper-class school and high financial status family in the 2010s.
Like, yes, this is not a universal experience, but it’s fantastically other to me. It’s not even like the fictional high schools of my high school life. It’s completely alien to everything I experienced. And you can pick through all sorts of details in it and no matter how I cut it, the number of things this movie is about or which wants to express or explore is nothing like anything I’ve ever experienced or that is meaningful to me.
Hell, look at the school’s size. The school is so big that you could go to this school and have a friend group and that friend group is completely different to other friend groups, and it’s entirely possible you could know someone in the seventh grade, and in the ninth grade, that person had changed while you hadn’t noticed and you needed to take an opportunity to get to know them again? That’s absolutely galactic to me. From kindergarden through to year nine, for me, I was in a class with two other people and we spent all our time in small wooden boxes, unable to talk to each other in class, and never did any collaborative classwork.
Oh, dating someone from school wasn’t weird, everyone did that, when the pastor helped them pick who they were going to date.
But then that ended when the pastor fled the church with millions of dollars of debt from the money he embezzled from the church to fund his multi-level marketing scheme, and hey, we’ve all been there, right?
How the hell then is this movie relatable to me? Well, part of it is media priming. I’ve watched tons of stories about ‘high school’ so much so that when I wrote my own fiction about high school I put in ridiculous anachronisms like the idea of students having lockers for keeping stuff in (like what the hell, I’ve never seen an Australian school with lockers). And like, story after story after story is about relationships in high school and the importance of this threshold of both inexperience and desire, and the way we treat teenagers, and, like, I’m pre-loaded with this stuff.
And therefore, rather than comparing To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before to, like, a real or authentic kind of experience of myself, I instead compare it to, well, its genre. It’s just like an action movie or a political drama. It’s just that time to time, watching this movie, there are moments that just confuse the hell out of me.
She talks to her family about her emotional problems! One of her sisters travels to study! She has anxiety about driving – because she can drive! And all these kids have cars! They go to parties! There’s a kid in this class who’s gay, and people know it and they don’t physically abuse him constantly! This is wild!
Then the question becomes… well, how does it do, in its own genre?
It’s really good. It’s sweet, it’s charming, I don’t feel like it’s trying to build up to some spectacle of watching adults that can meaningfully pretend to be teenagers doing something titillating (hi, Riverdale), the characters seem to behave in a way that makes sense to me, but it also shaves off things I’d expect from actual teenagers. Like, they talk over each other and disengage. There’s nobody getting violent over a conversation, there’s nobody shouting their points repeatedly.
Also, I think I need to restate: the premise of the story is really good and I kind of wish that the movie could do more with it than just as a stepping stone to just sidle into the single lane of a more complicated story. Really good, really quite cool, very charming and sweet.
What’s really wild about it, I guess, is that this movie stands apart. It’s that rare to see media of its ilk that focuses on a girl, doesn’t treat her like she is, herself, weird, shows her relating to people around her in emotionally sensible ways, and on top of all that, she just happens to not be a white girl.