Lara Jean Covey (Lana Condor) has a problem with her crushes: she hides them. That character trait reveals itself in two very different ways in Susan Johnson’s “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before,” the “Carrie Pilby” director’s spin on Jenny Han’s YA novel of the same name.
First, Lara Jean buries her emotions deep, deep down, refusing to get too close to anyone (especially cute boys she likes) beyond the close confines of her family. Then, when that becomes too much to bear, she lets loose by penning love letters to her dearest crushes (when the film opens, they number five), which she hides away in her closet. So what happens when those letters are let out into the world?
Adapted (and condensed) for the screen by screenwriter Sofia Alvarez, Han’s trilogy of novels trace what happens when her secrets are revealed to the world, a nightmare for any teenager but one especially jarring for a shy gal like Lara Jean. Like the eponymous star of Johnson’s previous effort, the Bel Powley vehicle “Carrie Pilby,” Lara Jean is an outsider with her own style, and while Condor’s character isn’t quite as strange as teen genius Carrie Pilby, Johnson is able to infuse her with the same kind of charm and empathy she captured in her previous film.
As outsized as Lara Jean’s predicament is — she didn’t just write letters to these guys, she also addressed each envelope, making it almost too easy for someone to find them and ship them off — “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” mostly stays grounded, thanks to Condor’s winning performance and a winking production from Johnson.
Lara Jean’s crushes span all the way back to middle school, but it’s her current love interest that drives the film’s first act: Josh (Israel Broussard), her childhood best friend, long-time neighbor, and older sister’s boyfriend. Now that’s sticky, and Alvarez does a great service to not just Lara Jean and Josh, but also her sister Margot (Janel Parrish) and their littlest sibling Kitty (Anna Cathcart), who are all lovingly written and portrayed as compelling, different people.
Lara Jean’s realization that her letters — some written years earlier — have been let loose in the world is both amusing and horrifying, and they’re capped off with the knowledge that her crush on Josh could ruin her entire family. That’s why she hatches a plan — not a great plan, and not an especially well thought-out plan — to attach herself to another letter recipient, all the better to throw Josh off and push back what is an obviously inevitable conversation.
Peter Kavinsky (Noah Centineo, also the star of Netflix’s other big late summer teen rom-com, “Sierra Burgess Is a Loser”) is a throwback crush, someone who Lara Jean briefly liked in middle school before ultimately losing him to her cruel ex-best friend, Genevieve (Emilija Baranac). But now Peter and Gen are broken up, and Peter is in the market for his own scheme to win back his former girlfriend. What better way to drum up jealousy than to take up with her ex-BFF, who is her polar opposite in nearly every way? On paper — and Lara Jean and Peter literally put it on paper — it’s a great plan, but it’s also one that many a rom-com has spun off before, and audiences will likely sniff out where it’s all going long before Lara Jean and Peter do.
Netflix has already unspooled a handful of rom-coms this year, from the charming “Set It Up” to the repugnant “The Kissing Booth,” but their newest batch offers some of their most promising teen-centric originals yet. “To All the Boys” cracks what should be an obvious code: find a sweet protagonist, and even the most outlandish of storylines can work. Yes, Lara Jean’s situation is bizarre (again, she addressed the letters), but Condor’s performance brings Lara Jean to life with wit and sweetness. Johnson’s brand of filmmaking is a good fit for the material, and her ability to pull together quick-cut flashbacks and inventive ways to make chatty monologues work keeps the film ticking along just as it’s about to fizz out.
Mostly, though, “To All the Boys” keeps a tight grip on the formula of every rom-com and adapts it for the younger set. Every beat of the film might be obvious, but that doesn’t detract from the enjoyability of watching an indelible young heroine like Lara Jean figure out her own life and just maybe fall in love in the process.
“To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” will be available to stream on Netflix starting on Friday, August 17.