Lara Jean Song Covey has always had a way with words. That’s precisely what started the action in Netflix’s winning 2018 teen rom-com “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before,” which offered a contemporary twist on the Cyrano mythos with a hefty dose of the ever-popular “let’s be fake boyfriend and girlfriend” storyline that has driven many a big screen high school romance. Based on Jenny Han’s young adult novel trilogy, that film hinged on the release of a pack of love letters written by romance-obsessed Lara Jean (budding star Lana Condor), who poured her heart out on the page, never expecting that any of the objects of her affection would ever receive her missives. Well, they did, and thus Netflix’s first great YA film franchise was born, one that gets a charming update in the film’s first of two planned sequels, which find Lara Jean’s words coming back to get her once again.
Fans worried they won’t remember the big beats of the first films needn’t worry, as “To All the Boys: P.S. I Still Love You” opens with a kicky recap that only adds to the burgeoning franchise’s episodic feel. Original director Susan Johnson has been replaced with cinematographer-turned-filmmaker Michael Fimognari (who also helmed the upcoming third feature in the franchise, “To All the Boys: Always and Forever, Lara Jean”), who expands out the reach and emotions of the story to make a sequel that’s bigger and better than its delightful predecessor.
Thanks to some light retconning that erases the surprising conclusion of the first film — Johnson’s film ended with the reveal that yet another of Lara Jean’s childhood crushes had received his misbegotten love letter, and showed up at her house to chat about it — “P.S. I Still Love You” opens with Lara Jean and said “fake” boyfriend Peter (Noah Centineo) deep in a real relationship, with only the audience realizing that another suitor is lingering just out of frame.
It’s only fitting that a franchise that so pulls so liberally from its ’80s-era predecessors — no other teen movie has made such a meal out of heart-eyed teens throwing their hands in the paramour’s back pockets since, of course, “16 Candles” — kicks off with a bopping tribute to “Adventures in Babysitting,” as Lara Jean dances around to “And Then He Kissed Me,” a la Elizabeth Shue. The classic teen rom-com DNA has always been strong in the series, but Fimognari’s throwback touches more firmly establish its genre bonafides.
Netflix / Bettina Strauss
Free of the shackles of their fake relationship, Lara Jean and Peter plunge headlong into a real romance, the kind of hormone-pumping affair that makes Lara Jean wake up every morning feeling as if she’s finally stumbled into her very own fairy tale. Still, there are worries: the relationship is Lara Jean’s first, but it’s not Peter’s, and she can’t help but worry she’s not living up to his expectations. “I’ve never been a girlfriend before, I hope I’m good at it,” she muses in one of the film’s many voiceovers. While the film stays distinctly family-friendly, Sofia Alvarez and J. Mills Goodloe’s script threads in some more R-rated worries — is Lara Jean ready to lose her virginity to someone decidedly more experienced like Peter? — that are welcome and refreshing.
Condor and Centineo’s chemistry, already one of the best elements of the first film, is even more adorable this time around. It’s both the film’s greatest strength and its biggest obstacle: how the hell do you break these two up? The assault is twofold, with Lara Jean’s concerns steadily feeding into some very relatable worries about how to even be in a relationship and the introduction of another very eligible suitor. For all its cutesy plotting, “P.S. I Love You” boldly builds in some big questions that should feel real to anyone who has ever been in a relationship, including the most basic of all: what happens when you really get to know the object of your affection?
For Lara Jean, that worry manifests itself in yet another potential love interest, one who appears to be far better suited for her than Peter, at least on paper. At the end of Johnson’s film, Lara Jean’s middle school crush John Ambrose McLaren appeared on her doorstep, clutching his own letter and ready to upend Lara Jean’s already fraught romantic life. Recast here with a standout Jordan Fisher, “P.S. I Still Love You” easily navigates any worries that Condor’s on-screen chemistry can only pop with Centineo. A literally candy-covered meet-cute (re-meet-cute?) with the duo helps seal their bond, as do flashbacks to their middle school mishaps and some cleverly retrofitted plot points from the original novel that ensure they spend plenty more time together.
Netflix / Bettina Strauss
Some additions to the film are meatier than others (Lara Jean’s Korean heritage gets a short but sweet sequence involving her extended family, while the introduction of Holland Taylor as a brassy new pal she meets while volunteering at an old folks’ home gets far more screen time), but “P.S. I Still Love You” makes off with the kind of steady world-expansion most franchises could benefit from. The many romances of Lara Jean might be the big draw — this is, after all, a rom-com — the film takes the time to build out Lara Jean as a person, not just a vessel for starry-eyed high school affections. Her bond with her youngest sister Kitty (Anna Cathcart) gets deeper as the pair push their dad (John Corbett) into a new romance of his own, and she’s also forced to reckon with the fallout of her failed friendship with Peter’s ex-girlfriend Gen (Emilija Baranac), who just so happens to be Lara Jean’s ex-best friend.
While Fimognari often hedges towards overly cute additions — the old folks’ home looks like something Wes Anderson cooked up in a particularly boring nightmare, some of Lara Jean’s voiceover musings go on for far too long, there’s a tendency to lean on needle drops during emotive moments — the film’s winning stars and ability to navigate bigger questions outshine the missteps. With one film left in the franchise, “P.S. I Still Love You” effectively operates as both its own feature and a bridge to the more adult questions Lara Jean and company will face in the final offering. It’s a love letter to teen movies of the past, but also a smart look at what they might be in the future.
“To All the Boys: P.S. I Still Love You” will be available to stream on Netflix starting on Wednesday, February 12.