To All The Boys Always And Forever movie review: A low-fi rom-com

To All The Boys Always And Forever cast: Lana Condor, Noah Centineo, Janel Parrish, Anna Cathcart, John Corbett, Sarayu Blue
To All The Boys Always And Forever director: Michael Fimognari
To All The Boys Always And Forever rating: 2 and a half stars

In To All The Boys: Always and Forever, Lara Jean (Condor) and Peter Kavinsky (Centineo) take a trip to New York, attend their last prom night in high school, hang out with BFFs, experience a joint epiphany at a wedding. They also break up and make up, and grow up, and that’s really the high point of this low-fi third and final instalment of the madly popular teen rom-com, rolling up right in time for Valentine’s Day.

One of the most striking things about this franchise, based on the bestselling young sdult series by Jenny Han, is just how carefully it skirts the roller coaster of high-pitched situation-and-emotion which is so much a part of the more recently made films and shows in the same genre, like, say, a 13 Reasons Why. Right from its first edition, To All The Boys takes us away from the ultra-macho, ultra-violent, ultra-sexual jock culture that seems to have permeated these other American high schools, into a gentler world where teenagers are genuinely interested in getting an education while dealing with the vagaries of bad grades, pesky siblings and supportive parents. Going by some of these recent shows, you would think that American teens spend all their time dodging vicious bullies, and killing themselves. To All The Boys, when it came in 2018, was reassuringly regular, and relatable.

The first film, To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before, was a real breath of fresh air. Yes, that’s a cliché as descriptions go, but sometimes cliches tell you everything: avid romantic letter writer Lara Jean literally falls upon Peter on a race track, and no, they don’t fall in love (that would be too much of a cliché), but we know where it was going, right from the start. The sequel, To All the Boys: P.S. I Still Love You, was more of the same, but managed to keep us watching, because the thing between Lara Jean aka LJ and Peter still felt true.

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Now here they are, about to go to the same college, and are busy making plans about all the stuff they will do, never, of course, letting each other out of sight. And then, wham, up comes a doozy: Peter gets admission to Stanford, LJ gets a rejection letter. Will they be able to keep things as they are, when they are apart, specially since LJ has set her heart upon crossing the coast to NYU? 3000 miles away? For four whole long years? Ohmg.

This thread about distance driving a wedge between young lovers reminded me of another winsome pair whose path is much more complicated. Sally Rooney’s 2018 novel Normal People which came out as a BBC show in 2020, also has a pair of high school lovers, but Marianne and Connell’s relationship is filled with a distinct salty passion. They are also finishing high school and about to go to college, but they are much more worldly-wise and experienced than LJ and Peter, who are happy to ‘burn slow and low’, and who give the impression that their rites of passage to adulthood will come only after they’ve left the safe haven of their all-American wholesome homes and families.

The genre conventions are all here: what’s an American teen romance without a prom night dreamy dance, after all? Or minus a bitchy/gossip girl? Or a class joker moment? But again, Always and Forever elides over these familiar elements quickly. It’s much more interested in the two main protagonists, satisfactorily mature and filled out. Peter gets a chance to catch up with his estranged father; Lara Jean gets to have a better connect with her elder sister who has left home, and we all get to be misty-eyed at the nuptials of LJ’s dishy dad (Corbett) and his girlfriend (Blue).

Despite some flat patches, and the predictable arcs, we stay invested in LJ and Peter, because there’s real sweetness to them, even as they get ‘their meet-cute’ and ‘their song’. It took me back, I tell you, to my own, but that’s a story for another day. For now, we wish LJ and Peter the best for their always and forever. It’s the movies, after all.

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