To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before (Susan Johnson, 2018)
Global Acquisition – Teen Romcom
Released in the middle of August 2018, To All the Boys… proved to be one of the most popular and important of the genre films Netflix released during its so-called “summer of love”. It also happens to be one of its best films to come off the company’s romcom conveyor belt. Not even the greenest Grinch on earth could deny that the film is likeable and charming, and for the record I would describe my own complexion as somewhere between Kermit and key lime pie filling.
The film’s plot sees teen wallflower Lara Jean (Lana Condor) find to her horror that a series of letters she has written to her five biggest crushes have mysteriously ended up getting mailed to the boys. One of the boys, Josh (Israel Broussard), was up until recently dating Lara Jean’s older sister and happens to be her next door neighbor. But this isn’t the biggest problem caused by the letters going out – actually Josh’s storyline is curiously underdeveloped in the film – instead Lara Jean is most mortified to find out that Peter Kavinsky (Noah Centineo) has received his letter. Kavinsky turns out himself to be recently broken up from Lara Jean’s frenemy Gen (Emilia Baranac) and he and Lara Jean ending up concocting a scheme to make everyone think they’re going out so that Peter can win back Gen.
There is a lot to like about To All the Boys. The production values are all high enough – definitely not true of many of Netflix’s teen romcoms, but significantly this is an acquisition and not a Full Original – and though there are a few holes in the plot (what 18 year old American girl goes to Scotland for college?), it is a well-written and directed film. In terms of scripting, the story moves along well enough, and there is a good deal of wit to be found in individual scenes and the film’s two ending sequences (watch the credits), but what I particularly appreciated vis-à-vis films such as The Kissing Booth were that the homages to classic romcoms actually worked to deepen the film, rather than just making you wish you were watching other films. The homage and “woke” re-reading of Asian representation in Sixteen Candles is the best instance of these, but I also liked the more subtle pastiche of My So-Called Life with Lara Jean’s best friends Chris (Madeline Arthur) and Lucas (Trezzo Moharo) being clear tributes to Angela’s (Claire Danes) alternative and gay friends.
The style is not exceptionally showy and this allows us to focus on the main characters. Lana Condor is good enough in this role. She is very sweet and inoffensively innocent in the way that teenage girls will welcome in the ugly duckling role (though I suspect teenage boys will be thoroughly bored by her). Her acting, however, is a bit uneven depending on her onscreen partners. With her father (John Corbett) or Peter she is terrific and you can really sense the chemistry with Peter in particular. With pretty much anyone else, though, and particularly with her sisters, there is a whiff of Drama Club about her.
Noah Centineo is the film’s main attraction, though, and steals pretty much every scene he’s in. He later became the face of this film as well as Netflix’s Sierra Burgess is a Loser, which was released only a few weeks later by the service. He really seems to have all the tools needed for teen stardom. He is exceptionally handsome but in a way that is relateable and believable. He plays Peter with so much roguish charm that you imagine he broke out laughing after every take of every scene. Whether or not he has depth and gravitas as an actor can’t really be judged from a role like this, but I do hope so as he seems a real talent, at least in terms of screen presence.
Netflix’s handling of the film was very interesting beyond just the saturation marketing of Centineo. The service especially tried to use the film to highlight its liberal credentials when it came to Asian-American representation, sowing stories about how they would never whitewash this story in the teen media and releasing the film on the exact same weekend as Crazy Rich Asians, seeking to both compete with and ride the coattails of Hollywood’s high-profile demonstration of its willingness to embrace non-white stories, as long as their supposed openmindedness created a big marketing hook for the film in question. Interestingly, the producers of CRA turned down Netflix in favor of a Hollywood theatrical release (LINK), and you can perhaps see Netflix’s marketing department trying to take some revenge by attempting to steal some of CRA’s thunder.
Either way, it is somewhat ridiculous and illogical that Netflix should try to present To All the Boys as an example of their willingness to produce positive Asian representations. After all, they didn’t actually produce the film, they bought it after the fact. This gave the film a big platform to be sure, but we should be careful to give the bulk of the credit to Awesomeness Films and Overbrook Entertainment for first having the courage to not whitewash the cast and moreover to hire a female director and screenwriter to handle the adaptation. Buy hey, who ever said marketing had to be logical and accurate?
With this role and his similar turn in Sierra Burgess Centineo was catapulted to stardom by Netflix’s promotional efforts. Now the internet is awash with all sorts of stories about and tributes to the star that just didn’t exist when he was just that guy from that show you saw once on cable. As you’ll see in my forthcoming review of SB this is part and parcel of an attempt by the streamer to develop an in-house stable of teen stars that, amongst other things, links parts of their catalog in algorithm-friendly ways.
A less heralded Netflix star in this case is producer Matt Kaplan. This was the third youth-oriented film that Kaplan sold to Netflix after Irreplaceable You and You Get Me. He has since moved to Paramount Players and so you might see many of the teen romcoms that Netflix is genuinely helping to popularize now start coming out in theaters in the future.
In addition to the Asian-American cast members here, we also have a female director and screenwriter in this case.
Conspicuous Product Placement
This is film features some of the most egregious instances of conspicuous product placement to be found amongst Netflix films or anywhere else really. Mountain Dew, Jaguar, Subway and Yakult are all prominently featured. Yakult may have reaped the most rewards in terms of increased sales, but it was Subway that was most annoyingly inserted into the story. One scene in particular – in which Chris and Lara Jean have subs under the bleachers – was grating and distracting. Here the two stop what they’re talking about to comment on how “tight” the sandwiches are. Again, Netflix didn’t undertake this product placement themselves, but they have helped to promote the impact the film had on Yakult sales, perhaps hoping to pave the way for more of this in the future.