There was a moment where the traditional romantic comedy was in real trouble. The heady days of “Notting Hill” and “Bridget Jones’ Diary” breaking the box office bank were fading fast. The market in which such films once operated had changed, now occupied by emotionally manipulative Nicholas Sparks adaptations, romances to make one weep rather than laugh. The genre needed a new lease on life, and with the June release of Claire Scanlon’s New York City-based “Set It Up” and now Susan Johnson’s teen hit “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before,” both streaming giants Netflix, may be the ones to reignite our affection for the humble rom-com.
A winning plot trigger makes it clear why “To All the Boys,” based on a 2014 young adult novel by Jenny Haney, has won over public hearts. Unpopular but cheery high school student Lara Jean (Lana Condor) has her world turned upside down when her younger sister posts letters she wrote but never sent to five crushes. Everyone who was once a teen can relate to the terrifying fear of having crushes made public.
But the film also revels in teenage fantasies. One of the letter recipients, jock-with-a-heart-of-gold Peter Kavinsky (Noah Centineo) enters into an agreement with Lara Jean. They will pretend to date to make respective prospective partners jealous — a dreamlike scenario for any student with an unrequited longing for an oblivious classmate.
While adhering to a classic rom-com formula, Johnson inverts the expected to make her mark. Not least, the casting of Condor, an Asian-American actress. Along with the recent release of “Crazy Rich Asians,” Hollywood is finally overcoming its outdated idea that films with Asian romantic leads won’t be profitable. It helps that Condor is excellent, nailing the mannerisms of an insecure but blossoming young woman, never falling into an archetype of pure innocence or of the kooky klutz.
It feels right that films such as this have found a new home on streaming services. After all, it’s a known rom-com trope for a heartbroken character to comfort themselves with romantic ideals and ice cream. Many have tried to “rejuvenate” the romantic comedy, but that notion misunderstands the primary reason we watch them: for comfort and idealism. “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” doesn’t reinvent the wheel and it knows it doesn’t need to; it’s John Hughes (“Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”) for a new generation of wide-eyed teens.