Elaine Lui is a sharp-witted blogger (laineygossip.com), a voice of reason on her TV chat show The Social and a successful author. And she’s watched the Netflix film To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before 15 times. Maybe 20. She and a friend are so obsessed, they made an ironclad sleepover date – on Valentine’s Day, no less – to watch the sequel, To All the Boys: P.S. I Still Love You. (It released on Wednesday.)
“I watched the first film on a Friday night at 11,” Lui said in a recent phone interview. “The minute it ended, I texted my friends, ‘My life is changed.’ Then I watched it again, until 3 a.m. I was in a full-blown swoon.”
Lui isn’t alone. At an advance screening for the sequel in Toronto last week, the excited audience was wall-to-wall female friends. They took selfies appended with numerous suggested hashtags – #ToAlltheBoys2, #PSIStillLoveYou, #TeamPeter, #TeamJohn. They squealed over the prize packs (an autographed copy of the eponymous Young Adult source novel, a sweatshirt, a free bubble tea). “Love the positive community here, guys!” said the emcee, who was introduced as “YouTuber Jaclyn Forbes!”
They clutched at each other every time Peter (Noah Centineo) looked into the eyes of our heroine, Lara Jean (Lana Condor). They cooed every time Lara Jean’s widowed dad (John Corbett) flirted with his neighbour. They sucked in their collective breath when Lara Jean was tempted by new hottie John Ambrose (Jordan Fisher). And they stuck around long after the film ended, through many glitch-plagued Skype calls, just to wave at two cast members. As they trailed out happily, Forbes called after them, “Tell your friends, post on social, do all the things!”
I can feel eyes rolling from here. Stop it. This is not paint-by-numbers, Hallmark-style fluff. These are good books and films, well-observed, funny, genuinely emotional. I’ve beaten this drum before, but I’m tired of art that is mainly (though not exclusively) consumed by girls and women being dismissed as less-than. A well-crafted romantic comedy, even one set in high school, can evoke those feelings of angst and awkwardness, breathlessness and giddiness that remain as sharp in adulthood as when you felt them in the moment.
Jenny Han’s novel, released in April, 2014, shot onto the New York Times bestseller list and stayed there for 40 weeks. A rare YA title with an Asian girl on its cover, it’s been translated into 30 languages. At Han’s Canadian book-signings, hundreds of fans show up – and did so long before the first film arrived in August, 2018. Shot mostly in Vancouver (standing in for Portland, Ore.), it has a 97-per-cent-fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. The weekend it dropped, the internet minted memes – the pocket twirl! – while respected culture pundits crafted thoughtful essays.
There are many reasons why To All the Boys… touches all the nerves. The premise is winning – a well-behaved 16-year-old with a vivid inner life; a cache of secret love letters that find their way to their subjects; a fake romance that turns very real. The books and films, “are full of the vibrancy and sweetness of young love,” Felicia Quon, vice-president of marketing and publicity at Simon and Schuster Canada, said via e-mail.
The diversity component matters. “As much as I love Bridget Jones, I’m not Bridget,” Lui says. “But when I look at Lara Jean – I shop on Korean fashion websites like her, her hair sort of looks like my hair. I have Chinese customs, like her Korean ones. It feels, finally, like being seen.”
“Kids of colour shouldn’t have to search for books [or films] to reflect their experience,” Quon agrees. “Kids want to feel represented.”
The one criticism that’s been levelled at Han, and by extension the films, is that none of Lara Jean’s crushes are Asian. “South and East Asian men stereotypically are not thought of as sexy – there are lots of studies on that,” Lui says. “Crazy Rich Asians challenged that, and Simu Liu will challenge it with his upcoming Marvel movie, [Shang-Chi and The Legend of the Ten Rings]. I hope To All the Boys… will be a stepping stone to a romance with two Asian leads. But one movie doesn’t have to do all the things.”
As well, To All the Boys fills the void left when Hollywood gave up on romantic comedies. “Society had to swing in the direction that a woman’s life and priority isn’t love,” Liu says. “We were fighting to get to equality, to prove that we can be doctors, CEOs, handle business deals.” Look at Greta Gerwig’s Little Women – the happy ending is the one where Jo doesn’t fall in love.
But in pushing for that advancement, Lui says, “we forgot that every one of us needs and prioritizes love. Not just women.”
As with all art, the real magic of To All the Boys… is in its execution – the way Han in the books, and screenwriter Sofia Alvarez and directors Susan Johnson and Michael Fimognari in the films, find the universal in the specific. The tone is sweet, but there’s rigour under there. It advocates for a world where relationships are multicultural, young heterosexual men experience emotions and a heroine isn’t ready for love until she addresses her first heartbreak, the loss of a female friendship. The second film, less overtly romantic than the first, risks not giving viewers what they think they want, in order to give them what they need.
“Every good rom-com needs to have that moment, the clench you feel in your stomach when the bottom drops out, and you are gutted,” Lui sums up. “In the first film, it happens for me when Lara Jean asks Peter, ‘Am I just a joke to you?’ And the look on his face is so pained. That tension, that drama – when a book or film can create that, I live on that.
“We know, rationally, it’s pretend,” she continues. “But the feeling is legitimate. It’s physical. And if something physical is happening to you, that’s when you know something special has just gone down."
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