To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before was the Netflix hit of 2018, but the sequel feels designed to replicate the success of the original without half as much heart, writes Sam Brooks.
Despite the bevy of Oscar nominations for Netflix at the recent Academy Awards, there’s still a stigma around a Netflix Original film. That comes partly from their sheer numbers – although many of them aren’t so much ‘Originals’ as they are ‘films purchased by Netflix’, a crucial distinction – and partly from the fact that many of them seem inherently made for television. This means they lack the cinematic flair that you expect from, you know, a movie.
Two genres happily unaffected by this lack of flair are the teen comedy and the rom com. We don’t remember these kinds of films for that one cool cinematic shot; we remember that one perfect moment we’ll carry for decades to come. Judd Nelson with his fist in the air, Lindsay Lohan breaking the crown into pieces, Emma Stone walking through the hallway with an ‘A’ stitched to her chest. Put this together with the fact we’re much more likely to watch them on laptops or tablets than on a large TV screen, and Netflix is clearly the perfect home for these two much-maligned genres. (See: Someone Great, Sierra Burgess is a Loser, The Perfect Date, et al.)
It shouldn’t have been a surprise that To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before was a hit, then. Not only was the 2018 teen romantic comedy beamed straight to our homes, it gave us two newcomers with shocking charisma – Lana Condor and Noah Centineo, who quickly became the Boy Wonder of Netflix – and was wholesome in a way that felt quietly groundbreaking. It wasn’t trying to be the coolest film out that week, despite what the soundtrack would have you believe. It was trying to worm its way into your heart and build a semi-permanent place there.
The sequel, the ludicrously titled To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before: P.S. I Still Love You, arrived on Thursday, nearly two years after the release of the first film, and it picks up shortly after that film’s ending. Lara Jean (Lana Condor, still bringing the same early Meg Ryan-esque energy) is officially dating Peter (Noah Centineo, still mumbly, still bright-eyed) and is understandably anxious about what’s expected of her in her first-ever relationship. To complicate matters, the character from the post-credits sequence of the first film, John Ambrose (Jordan Fisher), one of the recipients of Lara Jean’s love letters, shows up at a fancy old folks’ home where Lara Jean is volunteering. Hi-jinks, romantic complications, and teenage confusion ensue.
The sequel is, for the most part, a perfectly decent successor to the original. It’s less of a graduation from that film than a continuation; it introduces a few new plot elements but it’s generally more of the same. While it digs a little further into the characters, it seems to do so by necessity, as though the makers realised this is what you need to do to fill out a sequel, rather than what they needed to do because this story had to be told.
If you liked the original, and you’re invested in it, particularly in the character of Lara Jean, then it’s hard to believe you wouldn’t be invested in this one. That’s thanks largely to Lana Condor, who remains a sparkling, thoughtful presence throughout. It would be so easy for her character to become a blank slate for audiences to project themselves onto, but Condor injects Lara Jean with enough specificity, be it her occasional bashfulness or her classic teenage cruel streak, to stay compelling.
The film also replicates, and often exaggerates, the flaws presents in the original film. The soundtrack, increasingly a key and crucial aspect of all teen films (and also now Netflix films – it’s why Lizzo is a megastar now, y’all), is ever-present here, to cloying effect. There’s a ten minute stretch that has about five songs in quick successions, including a near-parodically moody version of ‘Girls Just Wanna Have Fun’, and it seems less for the film’s benefit and more for whatever Spotify playlist comes after. It feels calculated, like some kind of meta-partnership tie-in deal.
The music issue illuminates the main problem with the film as a whole. Even though it’s based on a preexisting work – a book trilogy written by Korean-American author Jenny Han – To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before: P.S. I Still Love You gives the impression that it’s been written, produced and music-directed by algorithm. Given the ecstatic, obsessive reception to the first film, there was zero doubt that there would be a sequel. The millions who watched the original wanted to see more of Peter and more of Lara Jean. And that’s what they’ve been given – nothing more, nothing less.
The reason why To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before took hold in people’s hearts was that it was just a bit better than it needed to be. It was a little bit more wholesome, a bit more progressive, a bit more diverse. Its two leads were different enough to be interesting, while still ticking all the romantic-lead boxes. It’s definitely a good thing that a sequel was greenlit (and that the sequel to the sequel has already been confirmed), but I’d like it a lot better if it didn’t seem such a cynical chapter in the story of a couple we’ve already grown to love.
You can watch To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before: P.S. I Still Love You on Netflix now.
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed daily digest of New Zealand’s most important stories, delivered directly to your inbox each morning.