In “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” (2018), we first see our protagonist Lara Jean in her own fantasies. She’s engaged in that familiar teen pastime of reading a romance novel while casting herself and one of her crushes in the lead roles. This non-diegetic “dream sequence” and its sudden interruption by the intrusion of the “real” diegetic world of the film, demonstrate that our young hero is an avid reader with a active fantasy life.
In these tandem opening scenes and the several normal scenes of domestic life that follow, we quickly recognize that Lara Jean is a caring sister and a kind daughter with a strong sense of right and wrong. For example, she would never encroach on her sister’s relationship with Josh (even after her sister breaks up with him). More gradually in the film, we also come to realize that while she does possess a strong moral center, a least part of her ability to resist the allure of Josh derives from her fears. Yes, she has an active romantic imagination, but love represents a scary unknown to her. Like many a teenager, she dreads experiencing love almost as much as she longs for it.
This film relies on the use of a voice-over to educate and orient the viewer. This dramatic device goes in and out of fashion pretty often, but it really works well here. Because this element is non-diegetic and the other characters are not privy to Lara Jean’s thoughts, her talking directly to us helps to develop a fast bond between the viewer and the protagonist. She’s smarter and funnier and more charming in the voice-over than she feels she’s able to be in the “real” diegetic world of the film, which encourages us to view her as something of an underdog. She’s our hero to root for as she seeks out love and as she gradually overcomes her trepidation about being vulnerable and intimate with someone. While it’s clear from her revealed personality that we as viewers would eventually relate to her in this way even without the voice-over, the film employs this device to ensure that we connect to her right from the start.
The movie’s inciting incident arrives only after we’ve gotten used to the new normal of Lara Jean’s life after her big sister goes off to college. The nice setup for this crucial narrative moment ensures that we are shocked but not surprised to learn that her private letters have been sent to her crushes. After all, psychoanalytic theory teaches us that “a letter always arrives at its destination.”
When Josh confronts her, Lara Jean realizes what has happened with her letters at the same moment we do. First she faints. Then she panics when she sees Josh approaching her. She knows for certain now that both her wildest fantasies and her worst fears are coming true at the same time. And in her panic, she kisses Peter to avoid confronting Josh.
Interestingly, this somewhat impulsive decision on her part forces her to “do the right thing” by not allowing herself to confront her abiding attraction to the “forbidden” figure of Josh. This involves some heavy psychological gymnastics on Lara Jean’s part. She only allows herself to kiss Peter in this moment because she convinces herself it’s just an “act.” But of course, we know that as soon as a couple starts to pretend they’re in love, they will inevitably fall in love for real.
From the moment onward, we are able to relax and bask in this charming film’s smart depiction of love. As one of you so aptly expressed in your answers to my discussion questions: “This film focuses on the duality of love; it is hard and takes work and communication but can also sweep us off our feet and make us feel special.” That’s very nicely put.
One of the best things about this story as a teen romantic comedy is how it demonstrates Peter’s kindness and patience with Lara Jean as she overcomes her fears and self-doubt. This movie really provides a positive model that shows how to developing trust and intimacy in a healthy relationship. I love that it also manages to do this without becoming too didactic or preachy.
Between the movie’s depiction of a healthy teen relationship and its innovative (?) placement of an Asian-American teenager in the lead role, it stands out from what some might see as a niche genre to become a really important film. The move and the book its based on are brilliant anyway, so their huge commercial success is not that surprising. But I think part of their cultural impact also comes from our collective eagerness to finally see films and television that aren’t white-washed but that actually show the cultural diversity that’s all around us everyday.
Kudos to Jenny Han and Netflix for recognizing and responding to this need! If you haven’t read Han’s moving and insightful New York Times Op-Ed about this issue, I would strongly encourage you to take a look at it: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/17/opinion/sunday/crazy-rich-asians-movie-idol.html