To All the Boys: Always and Forever (2021)
Director: Michael Fimognari
Screenwriters: Katie Lovejoy, Jenny Han
Starring: Lana Condor, Noah Centineo, Janel Parrish, Anna Cathcart
It has been three years since the surprisingly loveable first instalment of Jenny Han’s To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before series landed on Netflix. We met Lara Jean Covey, a sweet hopeless romantic, during a crisis of infatuation, brought about when her stash of private love-letters found their way into their intended recipients’ hands – her sister’s boyfriend among them. In a plot to throw off the scent of desperation, Lara Jean set up a mutually beneficial fake relationship with the school’s most popular heartthrob, Peter Kavinsky, and we fell in love with the pair as they fell in love with each other.
This first instalment felt like a new direction for teen-romance movies, offering an exploration of mature themes, a diverse cast of fresh talent, feminist politics and a millennial twang for a new generation of rom-com fans. The sickly sweet chemistry between co-stars Lana Condor and Noah Centineo proved binge-worthy and begged for rewatch after rewatch. Things got a bit rocky for Lara Jean in the series’ second instalment, To All The Boys: P.S I Still Love You, when a former crush arrived back in town and attempted to turn her head. Yet, despite the lacklustre love-triangle, Lara Jean and the doe-eyed Peter proved strong. Fans of the couple’s unwavering love might wonder what other obstacles could be left for Lara Jean and Peter to grapple with in the latest and final instalment of the series, To All The Boys: Always and Forever. Well, as it turns out, there is somebody else threatening to get in the way of Lara Jean’s perfect relationship: herself, and the possibility of falling in love with her future.
We catch up with Lara Jean (Lana Condor) and her family during a family vacation to Seoul, South Korea. The Covey sisters tour the city, learning about their culture and their Mother’s past whilst also getting to know their Dad’s new girlfriend, but the distance separating Lara Jean from her handsome beau Peter Kavinsky (Noah Centineo) proves difficult. Lara Jean consoles herself with visions of her shared future with Peter at Stanford University: where the pair dream of spending four perfect years in each other’s company – application approval pending. However, following an authentically magical visit to Manhatten, an adventure with some local New Yorkers (plus Gen, Emilija Baranac, who finally elevates out of her redundant mean girl role) and a tour of NYU’s glamorously inviting campus, Lara Jean falls in love with the idea of moving to the East Coast. Once the college application process gets underway, a different vision of the future starts to take shape in Lara Jean’s mind – one that doesn’t involve couples bike rides, holding hands on campus or playing footsie in the library.
This fresh set of obstacles are perhaps the most mature our passionate pair have come up against so far. Swamped with anxiety and confident that the decision to move to New York will bring her relationship to its close, Lara Jean fears that the wrong decision will leave her in regret. Peter is understanding of this new development (we can see why she likes him so much), but the prospect of a 3,000-mile separation throws a spanner into the works of the pair’s romance. An issue only exacerbated when Peter’s Father makes a sudden reappearance in his life, leaving him to come to terms with his feelings of abandonment. The situation soon comes full circle, mirroring that of Margot’s (Lara Jean’s sister), who moved to Scotland to attend University in the first To All The Boys instalment, subsequently breaking up with and crushing the heart of her high school sweetheart. However, convinced she and Peter are the real-deal, Lara Jean refuses to let him go without a fight.
It’s time to start taking umbrage with the concept of ‘guilty pleasure movies’, which is the usual throw around generalisation for films of this variety. To dismiss movies primarily aimed at young, female audiences as shameful to enjoy is a narrative we should collectively work to bring to a close. Yes, these films are sweet enough to bring on a toothache and cringe-inducing enough to deliver a lingering dose of second-hand embarrassment, but there’s so much to love about them. To All The Boys: Always and Forever is light and fluffy fun, easy viewing and deliciously captivating for all those hopeless romantics out there. Admittedly, the film might not float the boat of those not already invested in the franchise: recycled ideas and throw-back gags will only make sense to dedicated fans. Yet, while the series suffered a lull with the less than impressive second instalment, Always and Forever gets back on track, recentering the story on the initial spark and connection that drew audiences into Lara Jean and Peter’s cutesy romance.
To All The Boys: Always and Forever is a surprisingly honest portrayal of the anxieties facing young people at such a tumultuous time in their lives. The film hits all of those classic romantic comedy tropes, with grand gestures and sugar-coated, lovey-dovey montages galore. Yet, there is also a natural progression of the genre and a comprehensive look at teen-romance. The narrative gives Lara Jean space for introspective thought and self-exploration, allowing her to actualise a version of herself outside of her relationship with Peter. It’s extraordinarily validating to see a woman at the centre of a love story embrace desires unconnected to romantic love. Peter also takes the space permitted for self-expression, frequently talking openly and without shame about his worries and doubts. It’s rare to see male characters speak about their emotions like this – especially such complicated emotions connected to feelings of rejection and fragile self-worth. Condor and Centineo pepper their characters with a matured nuance, and it’s a very welcome and potentially significant change of pace for the teen-movie cannon.
Of course, with the film being a romantic comedy, most obstacles feel paper-thin and easily fixable. There’s little by the way of tension, and the repetitive, flimsy formula of mini fall-outs and amicable make-ups soon gets old. Peter’s placid personality and Lara Jean’s girlish naivety doesn’t exactly get hearts racing, either. Given the franchise’s tendency to lean into intelligent and complex themes, it feels like Always and Forever missed an opportunity to infuse a healthy dose of sex appeal into the frigid franchise. Teenagers are notoriously horny, but sex doesn’t seem to be a pressing issue for Peter and Lara Jean: the couple are more interested in eating pancakes and watching movies together – which yes, does sound lovely but is hardly realistic.
While it often comes close, Always and Forever fails to reach the monumentally flirtatious heights of To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before. Still, the film is a fitting, nostalgically tinged final adventure for Lara Jean, which will leave fans feeling satisfied, if not a little teary-eyed that this joyful, heart-warming series has finally reached its end.