Netflix shows have developed a reputation for being fantastic – Stranger Things, The Crown, House of Cards, Making a Murderer… and of course, Riverdale. But Netflix movies? Not so much. They often look like a lineup of tacky Hallmark-style movies, with the ratings to match.
So when To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before started going viral, I was curious. What could it be about this movie that has everyone raving and talking about this Pete Kavinsky character? Out of curiosity more than anything else, I finally watched it for myself to see what the fuss was about. Unfortunately, I watched it weeks after everyone else, and I suspect that played into my overall feelings about this movie, which can be summed up in one word: Underwhelmed (don’t @ me).
I wanted to like this film, I really did. It stars a woman of color, which is always a plus in my books, and who doesn’t enjoy a nice heartwarming tale? But quite honestly, I just didn’t get this movie, and I certainly didn’t get why there was so much praise for it. I feel like the Grinch for even writing this review. However, I acknowledge that seeing this movie so late in the game may have unfairly increased my expectations.
The story follows Lara Jean Song Covey, a head-in-the-clouds high schooler who at the ripe age of 16, has never had a boyfriend (what a loser, amirite? Hahahah *cries into yearbook photos*). She’s the quintessential good-girl outcast; she’s mocked at school by the classic Hot Girl Bully, Gen, and has only a handful of friends. She wears funky clothes, marches to the beat of her drum, and spends her weekends watching Golden Girl marathons with her 11-year-old sister (who in one scene, points out that she had to cancel her own plans to hang out with Lara Jean).
Despite her lack of real-life romantic experiences, Lara Jean is mesmerized by romance novels and often daydreams about her sister’s boyfriend Josh. She describes having truly loved five boys in her lifetime, and wrote secret love letters to each of them that she safely tucked away, with no intention of ever mailing.
The letters mysteriously get mailed out one day to all five boys, including Josh and high school heartthrob Pete Kavinsky, who has recently broken up with Gen. Pete suggests to Lara Jean that they pretend to be a couple in the hopes that he will make Gen jealous enough to win her back; in turn, Lara Jean can use the fake relationship to avoid having a discussion with Josh about what her letter meant.
Here’s where the movie takes a problematic turn (though I concede that I seem to be the only person in the world who feels this way). I couldn’t wrap my head around what Lara Jean was truly getting out of this ruse and why a fairly grounded character like her would have agreed to this. The explanation that it would delay an awkward conversation with Josh seemed weak, even for a rom-com. And while yes I realize this is just a movie, I couldn’t get past this glaring gap in logic.
My next issue ties back to (don’t hate me) Pete Kavinsky himself, who seemed to be a less toxic version of the Classic Fuckboy – the guy who doesn’t want to commit to a girl but strings her along, makes her feel guilty and never gives a straight answer about his actions.
In similar movies, we often see the popular jock slowly fall in love with the geeky girl, and accordingly, he changes to become a better version of himself. I didn’t see that in Pete; he seemed to be the same self-serving character all throughout, and when he decided he wanted Lara Jean, he got her – without having to change a single thing about himself.
Do I think he’s the most awful male character we’ve seen in a movie? Of course not. But I certainly didn’t see particularly admirable or gentlemanly characteristics in him either. He seemed to be yet another confident male who casually flip-flopped between which girl he wanted, and had girls fighting for his attention in the meantime. And while we weren’t supposed to sympathize with the villainous Gen character, I couldn’t help but think it was cruel that Pete concocted this scheme solely to make her jealous and win her back – and when he was successful in making her jealous, he decided that he didn’t want her after all. This movie somehow romanticized the unhealthy game playing that real-life dating has become.
One particularly low point in the movie comes about when Lara Jean and Pete attend their first party together. From the beginning, I was put off by Pete’s insistence that Lara Jean attend and blow off her scheduled family plans, telling her that it was “in their contract” (editor’s note: no it was not. He stipulated in their contract that she go with him to the ski trip, not every party). And why did he care so much that Lara Jean attend? To spend time with her? No. It was all to make Gen jealous. When they show up at the party, he unties Lara Jean’s trademark ponytail and tells her she looks better with her hair down – another classic Fuckboy move (and throughout the rest of the movie, Lara Jean continued to wear her hair down, which irrationally bothered me).
After the party, the pair go to a diner and as per the Fuckboy rulebook, Pete gets butthurt when Lara Jean reminds him that they’re only in a pretend relationship. Let’s please note that back at the party, he had been telling Gen in the bathroom how good she looked, and let her keep Lara Jean’s favourite scrunchy. But as with all controlling boys, he had the nerve to act curt when Lara Jean reminded him that their pretend relationship was… well, pretend.
We see Lara Jean’s nervousness when Pete reacts coldly to this comment and unconvincingly tells her that everything is fine. In what was a far too relatable moment for most girls, she sends him a cutesy text afterwards, in an attempt to ensure that things are okay between them. His kissy-face emoji response is straight from the lazy Fuckboy playbook (why do I know so much about this?), and is effective in appeasing Lara Jean – despite him not having the courtesy to actually write something back to her. A great example of how men can get by doing the absolute bare minimum.
Later on in the movie, we see two attempts by Lara Jean to confront Pete about his secret conversations with Gen. Rather than give a straight answer, he dodges the questions and makes comments such as “we were together for a long time, those feelings don’t just go away”.
The whole thing reeked of manipulation – making one girl feel bad for not having feelings for him, while he himself wanted to be with another girl (and was open about this end goal). It left a bad taste in my mouth and I hated that not only did Lara Jean fall for it, but that Pete was seen as the Good Guy throughout the movie. Crazy as I know it may seem to say this, these behaviours are the early warning signs of a controlling man – mentioning preferences about her appearance, claiming her time, making her feel guilty about innocent and factual statements, refusing to communicate and ultimately using her as a pawn for his own end game.
The movie did have some highlights –Lara Jean’s hilarious little sister Kitty was as sassy as she was smart, and the overall bond between the three sisters was heartwarming to see. It’s rare to see movies or shows focus on healthy, encouraging family relationships, and this made a nice change. This theme was capped off by Lara Jean’s adorable dad (who will forever be Aidan Shaw in my eyes), and the scene with his failed safe-sex talk left me cringing and laughing in equal measure. Lara Jean herself was a great character, outside of her “relationship” with Pete – she was sarcastic, sharp and confident in who she was, and served as a great role model for younger viewers.
But on the whole, I just couldn’t get behind this movie. I imagine this story is appealing in the way that She’s All That was appealing to teenagers of the 90’s – the nerdy girl gets the cool guy and puts the mean girl in her place.
But given recent discussions in the news about problematic male behavior, I couldn’t shake my concerns. The entire plot felt like a euphemism for how the dating game is often played: guy gets his pick of women, pits women against each other, makes them feel paranoid and jealous, and ultimately chooses who he wants to be with—all the while coming off as a great guy. Call me cynical, but there’s enough of this story in real life – I feel no need to watch it onscreen as well.