Random American Review: To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, an American Film With Many of the Things We Love From Indian Film

This is very strange, I know, for me to write about an American film. But it is really really good, and good in the same way that we love about Indian films. Ohm Shaanti Oshaana, Fidaa, DDLJ, if you like any or all of these movies, you will like this one.

There are three things that set this film apart. First, it is based on a heroine with her own desires that she pursues. Second, the story gives proper importance to all the relationships in the film, family and friends along with romance. And third, the romance is about two people slowly getting to know each other, not worshiping from afar or a sudden moment of falling in love.
Image result for to all the boys i loved before poster

Those are the same three things that brought many of us to Indian film. The classic Indian romances have a heroine who defies her family to pursue her own desires. But the conflict is that she also loves her family and is torn between her relationship with them and her new love. In order to be won over, she has to spend time with her lover and slowly get to know and appreciate him on a deeper level.

The simple fact of including family as an aspect to a romance suddenly makes the heroine three dimensional in a whole variety of ways. She loves more than just one person, she has duties and concerns beyond romantic love, and other people appreciate her and love her beyond the hero. In Indian films, the romantic love is what adds the new element to the heroine, a woman being seen as more than just a a daughter, a sister, and a potential daughter-in-law. But in American movies, she is more likely to be limited to “just” the love interest, the reward for the action hero after he wins the fight, or the nagging complication and source of humor for the comic hero. Add in a family relationship, and suddenly she is so much more.

And of course, making the heroine’s desires an element of the plot, that’s just built in to the romance form. It’s why women like it, if it is a movie about a man and a woman coming together, the women has to get at least as much attention as the man. Otherwise there is no driver to the plot. Make a comedy that treats female motivations seriously (Bridesmaids, Veere Di Wedding) or an action movie (Raazi, Wonder Woman) and women will like that too.

And then there is the getting to know the true love slowly. This is where the classic romance tends to have the ridiculous misunderstandings and plot contrivances. Because without them, it would just be “boy and girl meet, fall in love.” No one wants that! That’s just boring. Even worse is “boy and girl meet, have bad first impression, never talk again”. And then we don’t have a movie at all. A narrative needs conflict, so if it is a movie about a relationship between two people, we need two people with nothing in common so they can have conflict. But we also need two people to spend time together so we can have a movie that is more than 5 minutes long. So you have the couple who hate each other that have to spend the day together taking care of their kids (One Fine Day) or the couple that misses a train together (DDLJ) or the couple has an elaborate scam to pull off based around holiday events (every Christmas romance ever).

What is appealing about this is that films almost never take the time to really build a relationship, any kind of a relationship. I would be perfectly happy watching a movie that is about a father and daughter (Piku) or male friends (Dil Chahta Hai) or mother and daughter (Tezeeb). But we get those films much less often than we get the romance films, so I will take a really good romance film when I can get it. And, as I said, this is a really good one!

It’s got a great structure and narrative and all that stuff, and it is also just really well-made. It’s influenced by John Hughes who was great at the emotional moments in his stories, but also at the visuals of them. Clear clean images that don’t feel fake but are still beautiful. There is one moment when the hero and heroine are talking and the lighting and angle on her is slightly different and suddenly she is beautiful, just as their conversation shifts in such a way that tells us the hero is falling in love with her and seeing the beauty inside of her. Late in the film, our heroine goes to the hero on a sports field, having clarified her feelings, and the camera captures him standing in the center of the goal, a nice cheeky little visual that isn’t too over the top. And performances that don’t feel fake or over the top either, every actor gets their little moment to shine, and doesn’t laze around before that either, successfully building a character that makes sense start to finish.

Really, it’s just a very good film. You should watch it, and then come back and read the spoiler section of my review. Oh, and if you are shallow like that, I can tell you that there are two very attractive sensitive clever young male heroes, and John Corbett plays the heroine’s single father and he is just The Best.

The film this movie keeps calling back to is 16 Candles. And the nice thing is, it took all the good stuff from 16 Candles and got rid of the bad. Like the original, our heroine is an overlooked middle child. Like the original, it is a talk with her father that helps her feel really seen and loved and gives her the confidence to find true love. Like the original, it is a note that was not meant to be seen which first shocks the jocky hero into noticing this quieter student. But this version gets rid of the Asian stereotype (replacing it with an Asian heroine), and doesn’t minimize any of the characters into just a nerd or a pretty mean girl or anything else. It’s most noticeable in the character of the “evil ex”. Late in the film, Lana confronts her, and she reveals her own insecurities, she is jealous of Lana. She and Lana will still not be friends, and that’s okay, but she isn’t just being mean for the sake of being mean, she is more than a plot device. That alone made me sit up and go “wow, this is a little more than just a teen romance”.

Image result for 16 candles
Have I mentioned why I can’t fully enjoy John Hughes movies? He grew up in the same area my Dad did, so the characters and locations and personalities of his movies are all based on my Dad’s high school experience. It’s just WEIRD!

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This is really SUCH a well-constructed movie. The middle of it is all about the central romance, but it is woven into a whole tapestry of other relationships that all influence each other. It starts with our heroine being a middle sister without a mother, which makes her even more of a middle sister. That is, her older sister had to be the strong wise one who gently guides them all. And her younger sister got to be the charming friendly happy one. And then there is Lana Condor, the middle one. She fades into the background, happy to let her older sister take the lead and her younger sister shine bright, while she is just there. And then her older sister leaves, and everything in the house and inside of her shifts.

The one big thing Lana never let herself really want or go for is the boy next door, Isreal Braussard. He was her best friend for years, then started dating her older sister which made him permanently off limits. And then her sister breaks up with him right before leaving for college, and suddenly everything is changing all at once. Lana is the oldest in the house, thrust into attention in a way she never has been before, and her emotions are suddenly thrust at her own attention, since for the first time she has feelings for a boy who is now suddenly available to her.

That’s all the character groundwork, the kind of slow building of a personality and a unique situation, and that is what sets this film apart. The actual “plot” sounds kind of stupid when you write it out and is really pointless, only there in order to craft a structure to keep these characters together. But at least it is a structure that makes sense both in terms of “real world” (actual things that you can imagine people doing) and in terms of the internal logic created for these characters in this film.

Because our heroine is so used to fading away and hiding her feelings, while still being strong within herself and aware of what those feelings are, she reacts to crushes by writing letters which she never plans to send. She has 5 letters stored in her closet, the first to a boy from elementary school the next to a boy from Model UN, the next to a boy from middle-school she shared a “spin-the-bottle” kiss with, then a boy she danced with at her first high school dance, and finally the boy next door, the only one she actually knew and could truly imagine herself with, if he hadn’t been dating her sister. And then somehow all those letters get sent. If this were a less-good movie, we would either never know how, or it would be because they ended up in the donation box she just dropped off (what she thinks might have happened).

But this is a very good movie, and so there is a late in the film reveal that her younger sister, the one who was always confident and happy because she had no responsibilities, also felt the push of the oldest moving out. Suddenly she felt the need to do something and take care of our heroine, and so she found the letters and mailed them, hoping it would turn into a boyfriend or at least some kind of a life for her older sister. It is still all about the family dynamic, based on that not some strange coincidence.

The 5 letters alone would be enough to build a film on, but instead it suddenly veers away from that into a different situation based off of the letters. This is the only time I felt the plot kind of creak a bit. There is probably a simpler way to reach the situation it ended up at than the whole “letters” concept. And the letters never exactly come up again, except thematically as a way in which the heroine always hides her feelings. I’ll allow it though, since it is the only creaky bit, and it is a good hook to get people to watch this film/read the book it is based on, much better than the “contract for fake dating” that it turns into.

The narrative purpose of the letters is to trap the heroine in a situation where she needs to avoid the boy next door and hide her feelings for him, now that he has gotten the letter. And at the same time, it is a way to get her interacting with a different boy, Noah Centineo, another one she sent a letter two who comes to talk to her about it and who she agrees to make her fake boyfriend. And that “fake boyfriend” agreement is where the film truly takes off.

Image result for to all the boys i loved before hero

We, the audience, can tell pretty quickly that Noah is actually into her. But because this is a good movie, he is more than just “perfect dream lover”. He has his own baggage that the film does not avoid. One of the best parts of the movie, in terms of healthy gender dynamics, is that boys aren’t perfect other beings to crush on, they have their own stuff. Noahy has been dating the same girl since middle-school, she just broke up with him, and while he may like the heroine and be interested in her, he is working through his own thing in letting go of that past relationship that used to mean a lot to him. In the same way that Lana increasingly starts to like him, while still feeling a pull towards her long time crush on the boy next door. There is no “one true love” or “first love is real love” idea here, they both come into this with history and only slowly let go of it and move on.

Anyway, the “fake boyfriend” part of the film is really pretty unimaginative compared to the rest of it. Same thing we have seen in dozens of romances, especially of the teen variety. Because they are “faking”, they have to spend lots of time together, and they end up getting to know each other on a deeper level because of all this enforced propinquity. But the way this happens is very well-done. Noah sends mixed signals to Lana, and to the audience, but the film takes the time to explain it, to give us a glimpse of his internal conflict between the two girls, his ex and Lana. And at the same time, we see interactions between them that don’t feel forced, mutual teasing and getting to know each other, moving on to late night talks about his parents’ divorce and her mothers’ death. There is a reason this is a trope, the “fake” boyfriend or “fake” marriage, it creates a magical bubble of intimacy that allows the characters to grow together.

And then we have conflict. Believable conflict. In another movie, there would be a simple villain or a stupid misunderstanding. But this movie has a “smart” misunderstanding which is really just growing pains. They admit their feelings to each other, their real feelings, and then immediately break up because Lana worries Noah still cares about his ex, and he worries she is still hung up on the boy next door. There is a sex tape as a plot device, but it hardly matters, it’s just there to give them a reason to fight, these insecurities were long before that. And they are true concerns, Lana hasn’t processed her feelings and Noah and his ex are still messy.

Of course, this is still high school, so it can all be resolved a lot easier than in an “adult” version of this kind of conflict, like Love Aaj Kal. And again, the film is smart and goes back to the source. Lana’s big sister comes home from college and resolving that relationship resolves everything else. They talk, Lana realizes she really is over Josh but her crush on him helped her be ready for something real, and she also realizes why it was good her sister broke up with him before going to college, how leaving things behind can be healthy. And the whole family talks about, basically, Lana’s “middle child syndrome”, always fading away and being ignored, and how dating (or fake dating) a nice boy helped her get over that and she shouldn’t see it as a mistake. And Lana learns, finally, that it was her little sister who mailed the letters and why she did it, out of concern that Lana was going to spend her whole life scared to live.

It is this family talk that makes the difference, not some big gesture of love from the hero. Which is a sign both of the strength of the heroine’s characturization, and the strength of the relationship already built between hero and heroine. We (the audience) and Lana (the character) don’t need some big gesture, because the little gestures were there all along. And now that she has resolved her internal conflict, there is nothing to stop her from going after what she wants.

Which brings me back to where I started. This is a film where the heroine’s desires and decisions drive the narrative. And that is rare enough that it deserves to be celebrated, in Indian film and especially in American film.

(yes, there will be a post later to re-write/recast it for India. Have your ideas ready!)

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7 thoughts on “Random American Review: To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, an American Film With Many of the Things We Love From Indian Film

  1. It was such a good movie! Also had a little bit of an Ohm Shanti Oshana feel in the slow reveal and then final avalanche of the hero’s feelings being revealed.

    Indian remake questions: does it have to be a teen story or should it be moved up in age? Also, how important are the various ethnic aspects of the different characters, and does that have to be translated?

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  2. This was such a delightful surprise to wake up to!! When the movie first came out I watched it twice in two days. It is just SO GOOD. Like the whole world, I fell for Peter Kavinsky (Noah Centineo). It is now my comfort movie when I’m down. I’ve watched it multiple times. I follow the author on twitter, and this was one of those Netflix movies that people just watched over and over. My oldest son (26) also watched it and loved it.

    I think the fact that it is a woman director, Susan Johnson, is part of why the movie just feels so right. As you’ve said, the film is not just about the high school romance — it’s also about family, and sisters, and friendships, and frenemies. The novel is written by author Jenny Han, and she had many offers to option this book by different film studios, but all of them wanted to make all the characters white. She insisted that the family have half-Asian sisters because she had never seen herself represented on screen, and that’s part of why she wrote the book. Only Netflix, and this director, committed to having the central character Lara Jean, and her sisters be half-Korean. Peter (Noah) going to get the Korean yogurt drink she likes from across town is one romantic gesture in the movie.

    I don’t know if you watched all the way through the credits, because there is an end credit scene. Remember, there was one letter sent to her crush from model UN. He rings the doorbell with flowers and the letter in hand. This movie is based on a book that is the first in a trilogy, and with the outrageous success of TATBILB, a deal was made for a sequel, with the original actors was quickly signed.

    Halloween had many people posting on Instagram and Twitter dressing up as Lara Jean. Asian teens felt like they finally had a character to dress up as, and the author got quite emotional reposting many of these pictures. The costuming of Lara Jean is amazing, and central to her character. Also the production design of her room, down to her bookshelf of romance novels.

    Another fun trivia — the now iconic back-pocket twirl is something that Noah Centineo came up with on set. He is just so adorable, and believe me I’m relieved he’s over 21 so I don’t have to feel too creepy!

    He is also starring in another Netflix teen romance – Sierra Burgess Is A Loser starring Shannon Purser (Barb from Stranger Things) – that came out shortly after TATBILB. It isn’t quite as good and is sort of a Cyrano story, and some people have issues with how Noah’s character is deceived, and is kissed by one character when he thinks it’s another.

    Noah Centineo has been signed to do the upcoming Charlie’s Angels movie.

    I think Netflix has seen that there is a hunger in American audiences for romantic comedies — and Hollywood is not providing them, except for Crazy Rich Asians, which was wildly successful. Netflix can see what their audience watches, and rewatches — and has started to make their own in-house productions of romantic films. To that I say, HURRAY!!!

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    • The costuming and room decoration was so perfect, especially that it was specific to the central character. That is, none of the other characters got that level of costume and room detail. It was a subtle way that the audience was tuned in to care more about Lara Jean than anyone else, similar to giving an actor more close-ups in order to make us feel their emotions versus the other characters in the scene.

      Really interesting point about the rewatchability. I mean, it’s kind of Netflix’s fault that this is such an issue. With streaming now, and Netflix pushing to have theatrical releases earlier and earlier available, a film can’t really make it in theaters on rewatching, because people will see it once and then wait until streaming to see it again and again, instead of seeing it again and again in theaters. Especially a movie aimed at younger people who are more likely to be aware of streaming options. So we are left with Netflix making the high quality rewatchable films, and the theatrical releases being the big flash in the pan stuff that everyone sees opening weekend and then forgets.

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    • Oh, and you have to give me an opinion on the Indian remake casting! John Corbett (obviously) is the hardest and most important one to cast. Madhavan? Anil?

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