Netflix’s sickly-sweet teen rom-com series finally reaches the limits of its charm offensive with an overlong, stakes-less conclusion.
In the wide world of algorithmically-derived Netflix teen romantic comedies, surely one of the finest was 2018’s To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before, the syrupy-sweet story of adorable bookworm Lara Jean Covey (an always-radiant Lana Condor) and her shockingly-resilient relationship with too-good-to-be-true-except-he-is jock Peter (Noah Centineo). The film did well enough to spawn an entire trilogy based on Jenny Han’s YA romances; while the second, To All the Boys: P.S. I Still Love You, still had its fair share of charms, it started to show the cracks in the sunny, conflict-free firmament of Lara Jean’s fairy tale romance. Now, the trilogy closes with To All the Boys: Always and Forever, and this time, the decision isn’t between Peter and some other boy: it’s between Peter and the rest of her life.
Here’s the rub: the To All the Boys series has set up Lara Jean and Peter as the ultimate twue-wuv pairing, a duo that’s charming almost to the point of nausea, kids with their shit together so much they make me, a man in his mid-thirties with a wife, a cat, and gainful employment, jealous. They’ve already weathered so many romantic tests, and their sweetly innocent bond has already passed through two films’ worth of gauntlets. The only thing left to break up their honeymoon period is, well, the same thing that inevitably breaks up every set of high school sweethearts: college.
At the film’s start, Peter’s gotten into Stanford, and Lara Jean soon learns that she got rejected — their plans of sharing college together are dashed. Granted, she gets accepted to UC Berkeley an hour away, and Peter starts nervously recalibrating their plans to make it work (“We’ll see each other every weekend!”). But after a senior trip to New York opens her up to the charms of the Big Apple, and an acceptance to NYU cements that desire, Lara Jean finds herself pulled in different directions. Somewhere inside, Lara Jean knows which choice she wants to make. But can she work up the will to tell Peter? And how will he react?
It’s these moments that resonate most in Always and Forever, since director Michael Fimognari (returning from P.S.)and screenwriter Katie Lovejoy actually take them seriously. Gone is the will-she-wont-she of romantic entanglement, instead applying Lara Jean’s characteristic shyness and avoidance of conflict to more significant stakes than puppy love and high school projects. She’s a magnet for self-pity and indecision, someone whose inability to make clear choices for herself has been the lynchpin of the series itself. But this time, we see some growth from her, Condor admirably playing the scenes where she begins to slowly realize that, for once, she should put herself first. “You gotta be true to who you are,” her father (John Corbett) warmly advises her.
Prior to this, ‘who Lara Jean is’ was wrapped up in her relationship with Peter, illustrated cheekily with fantasy sequences where she flashes through the major milestones of their lives together — college, marriage, buying a home — losing herself in that preordained future. It doesn’t help, of course, that Peter’s bought into that fantasy too, which manifests in his over-the-top John Hughes movie gestures (including holding a Bluetooth boombox outside her window, Say Anything-style) that are so romantic as to practically pressure her into acquiescing.
We can see in Condor’s performance the reluctant Lara Jean going along with these gestures and college plans out of a sense of pure momentum. In Centineo, we see a happy, excited kid not yet mature enough to realize he’s pushing his girlfriend into a life she doesn’t really want. Always and Forever finally starts to show some cracks in the facade of Netflix’s OTP, and that’s when the film really picks up.
Always and Forever makes the frustrating mistake of not following through on the more bittersweet promises of its premise.
It’s too bad, then, that Always and Forever is also one of the most overstuffed of the To All The Boys movies, spending reams of its two entire hours trying to attend to the thick roster of supporting characters it’s built up over the first two films. Curiously, P.S. I Still Love You rival John Ambrose is nowhere to be found. But considering that the film still wants to juggle Lara Jean’s dad marrying his girlfriend Trina (Sarayu Blue), Lara Jean’s charming sisters (Janel Parrish’s pragmatic Margot and Anna Cathcart‘s scene-stealing Kitty), two sightseeing trips to Seoul and New York, respectively, and a host of parties from prom to proposals, it’s easy for the film to lose its leads from time to time. Oh, and we can’t forget a subplot involving Peter’s absentee dad (Henry Thomas), whose belated overtures to reintegrate himself into his son’s life, despite Peter’s antipathy for him.
On top of that, Always and Forever makes the frustrating mistake of not following through on the more bittersweet promises of its premise. For all Lovejoy, Fimognari and the cast find interesting wrinkles to the happily-ever-after story the series has sold us thus far, the final minutes can’t quite manage to follow those complications to their logical, interesting conclusion. We love Lara Jean, and we even love Peter, for all his goofy charm and impossible dimples. But we also need them to commit to the difficult choices life has to offer them, and Always and Forever doesn’t quite afford them that maturity by the time the credits roll. For this series (and Netflix’s fickle subscribers), puppy love conquers all.
To All the Boys: Always and Forever seals its love letter with a kiss February 12th.