Read This Before You Watch “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before”

Based on Jenny Han’s 2014 YA novel with the same title, the teen romantic comedy “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” has been winning hearts and making fans ever since its release by Netflix in 2018. Han reportedly turned down offers from other production companies that would not promise to cast an Asian-American actress in the lead role of Lara Jean. The author felt so strongly about this aspect that she held out until just one company, Netflix finally offered her that guarantee. As a result, Lana Condor landed the part and inhabits the role brilliantly. And that’s only one of the many elements that make this movie something special.

Yes, the plot of this movie follows many of the standard conventions we’ve all come to expect in a teen rom-com – pervasive awkwardness and insecurity, secret crushes, the popular kids versus the ones on the fringe, and the well-meaning if out-of-touch adults – but “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” also nicely captures quite a number of those truly wonderful things about adolescent romance that few movies have done so well. It nails that magical feeling when somebody finally likes you back, so intoxicating but still so tinged with confusion and anxiety and self-doubt. It also avoids the easy pitfalls that make some teen rom-coms fall flat. It skips the ridiculous misunderstandings that spiral out of all control, the stupid and obnoxious pranks, and the senselessly cruelty to each other.

This movie has real heart. It knows enough and trusts its audience enough to realize that growing up and finding love are still difficult even without over-the-top obstacles. Moreover, the people in this movie are kind to each other. For the most part, these characters see and understand and respect each other. There’s just so much to admire and to enjoy about this movie that you shouldn’t be surprised if you find yourself watching it more than once.

But beyond simply basking in the good feels this one gives you, we should also consider how this movie accomplishes what it does. We’re watching this as part of a media studies series, after all.

One of the things I’ll ask you to watch for is what screenwriters and film makers call the “inciting incident,” or that moment early in any story where the main plot starts and the protagonist is thrown into circumstances outside of their control. Urgent action becomes required. Even if you’ve never heard this moment called an inciting incident before, you’ve seen enough movies to recognize this when it happens. Watch for this moment because I’m going to ask you about it in the discussion questions.

This film also features something called a “voice-over,” where we hear the story being narrated to us by the protagonist Lara Jean. This common cinematic device, somewhat similar to a Shakespearean soliloquy or aside, allows the audience to hear a character talk about their inner thoughts and feelings. The device of a voice-over is understood to be non-diegetic. That is to say, although we hear the character speaking to us as we watch the film, the monologue is not meant as part of the diegetic (or “real”) world of the film’s fictional construction. The other characters can’t hear it or react to it.

As experienced movie and television watchers, we naturally recognize and accept certain elements of a film as either diegetic (existing in the fictional world) or non-diegetic (not existing in the fiction world but a logical part of the storytelling apparatus). As you watch the film, pay attention to which things belong to the world of the movie and which things instead form part of the external narrative framework. In the discussion questions, I’ll ask you to comment on what you noticed.

That’s probably enough film theory stuff to get us started. Enjoy the movie!

Published by Chuck Caruso

writer of dark fiction (crime, horror & western noir), literary & textual scholar (american gothic, noir, po-co, sf), and cultural critic

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