Why Netflix's 'To All the Boys' Sequel Doesn't Recapture the Magic of the First Movie
One of Netflix's biggest sensations of 2018 was To All the Boys I've Loved Before, a rom-com based on the first novel in Jenny Han's trilogy about a high-school girl named Lara Jean Covey (played by Lana Condor) whose secret letters to various guys she has crushes on get mailed out. Not surprisingly, Netflix signed on to adapt the two other books in trilogy, P.S. I Still Love You and Always and Forever, Lara Jean; the first, helpfully titled To All the Boys: P.S. I Love You, came out this week, and Thrillist Entertainment staffers Esther Zuckerman and Leanne Butkovic have thoughts.
Note: Spoilers for both To All the Boys movies ensue.
Esther Zuckerman: When To All the Boys I've Loved Before dropped on Netflix in summer 2018, I was absolutely into its swoony take on the teen rom-com, a well-crafted John Hughes throwback, outfitted in Pinterest-perfect production design and starring two charming actors -- Lana Condor and Noah Centineo -- destined for stardom. This is all to say that I was excited for the sequel To All the Boys: P.S. I Still Love You. More Noah Centineo smiling? More indie dream-pop? More of Lara Jean Covey's ideal fashion sense? Sign me up.
But as I watched the follow-up, eager for the much-hyped love triangle, I slowly realized the magic wasn't quite there this time. Centineo and Lana Condor's chemistry squeaks rather than sizzles. The narrative feels lackluster, with more hemming and hawing than actual action. In the entirety of the running time nothing of any significance really happens. And mostly I just wondered: Is Lara Jean actually the villain of this whole thing?
As a concept, P.S. I Still Love You makes a lot of sense. If the first To All the Boys follows a traditional rom-com path, P.S. I Still Love You makes us consider what happens after our central couple finally decides they are perfect for one another. Lara Jean and Peter Kavinsky are now girlfriend and boyfriend. He takes her out to nice dinners, lets her drive his car, and buys her an incredibly thoughtful Valentine's Day gift. But she's preoccupied with his ex -- her former friend -- constantly wondering if he's just repeating moves. (Been there!) Complicating matters is the fact that she's received a letter from one of her former crushes, John Ambrose McClaren (Jordan Fisher), who just happens to be volunteering at the same retirement home she is.
When I was a lonely, boyfriendless, high schooler I remember hearing lines like "if you just told [insert boy] that you like him, you'll probably find out he likes you back." Lara Jean is that fantasy come to life. But she's also... sort of an asshole here? She hides her flirtation with John Ambrose from Peter and hides her relationship with Peter from John Ambrose, ultimately forcing them to meet up in the most awkward way possible. Fine, the whole point of the movie is that she's got a lot of growing to do, and I appreciate that, but she never really owns her mistakes. Leanne, let me know: Am I the one being a jerk?
Leanne Butkovic: If Lara Jean and Peter’s relationship ever made it into the Am I the Asshole? subreddit, the consensus would probably be Everyone Suck Here. So on one hand, I don’t think it’s totally unreasonable to classify LJ’s actions as cowardly, but on the other, I sympathize with the unenviable position she’s in, even if she kinda made the mess to begin with. She’s a lovesick teen who suddenly finds herself between two hot boys, both of whom she has history with -- of course she’d be confused!
Like you said, Esther, the point is that she’s “figuring it all out,” and I think it’s precisely because this experience is overwhelming to her that her actions come off as self-serving. Should she have considered the other boys’ feelings more? Yes. Should she have been more honest with them? Of course. Did she really have the capacity for it though? I don’t know! I sure as hell was not a model teen in that regard, so I’m in no position to offer a black-and-white moral judgment here. I do appreciate that her new bocce ace senior friend Stormy framed her predicament as normal, that she was going to kiss a lot of the wrong people before… not doing it anymore. The subtext of that, to me, aligns with the usually surprising realization as a young person that adult relationships tend to be messy and frequently overlap one another when we’re made to believe that there’s only one way to fall in love, which Lara Jean has been lapping up in romance novels her whole life.
Beyond her actions though, it was sketchy that Peter was holding out on LJ about the source of the video of them making out in the hot tub and who he was truly waiting for there while holding firm that he had no idea and acting like a sweetheart, assuaging her anxious ego. That, to me, is almost more two-faced than what Lara Jean did; at least she was open with him about her worries about being Girlfriend. But man, poor John Ambrose! Esther, how do you think he dealt with being led on by his sixth grade crush so hard?
Esther: First off, I think you're right about Peter's betrayal with regards to the video, but at that point you're already conditioned to think Lara Jean is unreasonable. (I wonder if this has something to do with the fact that a man directed this installment, replacing Susan Johnson, who helmed the first one.)
As for John Ambrose, I'd like to make it clear that I knew Jordan Fisher was going to be a thing in 2016 when he played Doody in Grease Live! Shout out to Doody. (Also shout out to Grease Live!, which was so much better than it had any right to be.) Fisher is charming as all hell and has a great smile, but I think for as much as the whole Team Peter-Team John thing is the hook of P.S. I Love You, the movie itself feels very much on Peter's side, at least in the sense that it never treats John Ambrose as a real possibility for Lara Jean. He's just a roadblock in the way of her ending up with our main man. And as much as Fisher tries, John Ambrose doesn't make much of an impression. He's a nice guy with good penmanship who's a very talented piano player. He doesn't even seem that mad when Lara Jean casually leaves out some crucial details about her love life.
The emotional moment John Ambrose and Lara Jean share at the retirement home's Star Ball is entirely anticlimactic because you're just waiting for the next one wherein Peter shows up. For me, the most exciting part of the whole thing was when absolute legend Holland Taylor does what she does best: Gives advice to our heroine. Remember when she told Elle Woods, "If you're going to let one stupid prick ruin your life, you're not the girl I thought you were??????"
Leanne: How could one forget!!! Love the consistency on her stance on boys for practically 20 years. But I completely agree, it felt like John Ambrose, despite being adorable and charming and down-to-earth, never stood a chance against Peter, even when he turned out to be exactly the kind of last-slice-of-pizza eater John Ambrose said he was. Based on his chill and patient disposition through the entire movie, I didn't find it totally odd that he wasn't aggressively angry about Lara Jean not being entirely truthful about her relationship with Peter, but the way that he just let that -- AND Lara Jean running off after their inevitable kiss in the snow -- not really affect him more intensely felt untrue. Like, even the doughiest softbois aren't that patient.
On the whole, this sequel actually had me rooting against Lara Jean and Peter staying together, which sucks because that was all I wanted for them in the first movie! (Who didn't!) To your earlier point, their chemistry feels decidedly off here, and part of me wonders if they've succumbed to the Jim and Pam Problem, where the will they, won't they romantic payoff already paid off but hey, there's still content to be made! Maybe I'm being too cynical.
Luckily, while everyone else was being annoying and pissin' me off, there's a new budding couple in town, and that's Lara Jean's best friend Christine and Peter's lacrosse teammate Trevor, who at one point says "Linkin Park slaps." If they don't make it through the already-in-development threequel, then I'll consider true love dead.
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Leanne Butkovic is an entertainment editor at Thrillist, on Twitter @leanbutk.