Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Netflix’s To All The Boys series ends on a high note

Illustration for article titled Netflix’s To All The Boys series ends on a high note
Photo: Katie Yu/Netflix

To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before may have started with a cheesy fake-dating premise, but what’s always made the series shine is how much it respects its teenage characters. Netflix’s take on Jenny Han’s trilogy of YA novels understands that tiny slights like who sits next to who on a bus trip can feel monumental in high school. But it also believes that teenagers have the emotional capacity to work through their problems thoughtfully and compassionately. While the second film stumbled by favoring a toothless rom-com love triangle over the more lived-in character building of the first, the third installment returns the series to more emotionally honest terrain. Though it doesn’t entirely recapture the lightning-in-a-bottle magic of the original, To All The Boys: Always And Forever is a worthy sendoff for this well-loved series.

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In fact, Always And Forever makes so little reference to last year’s To All The Boys: P.S. I Still Love You that it could easily serve as a direct sequel to the 2018 original. With the rom-com dramatics behind them, high school seniors Lara Jean Covey (Lana Condor) and Peter Kavinsky (Noah Centineo) are now firmly secure in their relationship and looking ahead to their plans for college. Their hope is to attend Stanford together—him on a lacrosse scholarship, her to study English lit. But when Lara Jean is rejected by the school, that picture-perfect future is suddenly a lot more uncertain. Always And Forever at first seems to be setting up a contrived storyline in which Lara Jean hides her Stanford rejection from Peter, maintaining an elaborate ruse like their own fake-date origin story. Thankfully, the film swerves to a more emotionally honest conflict instead. As her senior year unfolds, Lara Jean begins to realize that maybe she should choose her collegiate future based on more than just being near her boyfriend, dreamy as he may be.

With an episodic structure that includes a family trip to Seoul, a school trip to New York City, an impending wedding, and the all-important senior prom, Always And Forever sometimes feels more like a condensed season of television than a movie. But plot has never been the most important thing about a franchise that dances along on cozy, feel-good vibes and Instagram-inspired imagery. Returning filmmaker Michael Fimognari (who lensed the first film and directed the second) uses the trip to Seoul’s cutest tourist hotspots as an excuse to turn up the twee, adding animated elements to the film’s hip, color-coordinated world. It’s an aesthetic that reflects the sensibilities of its protagonist: neat, quirky, and just a touch old-fashioned.

Illustration for article titled Netflix’s To All The Boys series ends on a high note
Photo: Sarah Shatz/Netflix

Even more so than the first two films, this is truly Lara Jean’s story, one that explores her life not just as someone’s girlfriend but as a daughter, sister, friend, student, and person in her own right. Romantic comedies have long been a haven for women’s stories, and while Lara Jean and Peter are still plenty adorable together, some of Lara Jean’s best scenes pair her with her outspoken sisters (Janel Parrish and Anna Cathcart), her supportive father (John Corbett), his empathetic new friend (Sarayu Blue, who joined the series in the second installment), and any number of high school pals. As in the first two films, Lana Condor pulls off the trickier-than-it-looks task of externalizing the inner life of a deeply internal character. And there’s one lengthy gut punch of a reaction shot that demonstrates just how much Condor has grown as an actor over the course of these three films.

Always And Forever’s one real misstep is an underdeveloped subplot about Peter’s relationship to his estranged father (Henry Thomas), which is an unnecessary attempt to give Peter some of the same depth as Lara Jean. Ultimately, he works best as a supporting player in her world, especially when Centineo’s chemistry with Condor remains as strong as ever. Always And Forever argues that in order for a relationship to be truly healthy, there needs to be space for both people to grow individually, and Centineo and Condor have a natural maturity that makes that lesson ring true. If this series is sometimes a little too gentle for its own good—more interested in cheerfully colorful montages than the darkest depths of teenage emotions—it at least finds a relatable core for its rom-com reveries.

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Shot in pre-pandemic 2019, Always And Forever gains an extra poignancy thanks to the world it’s being released into. The high school proms, family weddings, and international vacations now feel like a glimpse into an alternate reality (just the image of students casually passing around 2021 yearbooks is moving), while its central themes of separation and change are more relevant than ever. Like most senior-year movies, Always And Forever is about saying goodbye to one way of life and starting another. And this trilogy capper isn’t afraid to evoke its own past for pathos. Regardless of what you think about where the film chooses to leave its teenage lovers, this is a series that’s always been greater than the sum of its rom-com parts. And Always And Forever is one last love letter to its enchanting world.

Contributor, The A.V. Club. Caroline Siede is a pop culture critic in Chicago, where the cold never bothers her anyway. Her interests include superhero movies, feminist theory, and Jane Austen novels.