The romantic comedy “Summer of Love” of 2018 culminated in the sleeper, big-screen hit “Crazy Rich Asians,” but it did not begin there. It really started at home on Netflix, the winter before, with the debut of “A Christmas Prince.” From there, the streamer rolled out even more romantic comedies, from “Set It Up” to “The Kissing Booth.” But it was the sweet surprise of “To All the Boys I Loved Before” in August 2018 (arriving barely days after “Crazy Rich Asians”) that convinced the industry the “rom-com” was once again viable. Based on the Jenny Han YA novel of the same name, the cute story of sophomore Lara Jean’s (Lana Condor) fantasy love letters to her teen classmates was a perfect bit of froth.
For a variety of reasons, this trilogy’s last chapter feels less like a finale and more like a cozy check in with friends.
Now, on Valentine’s Day three years later, the story draws to a close with “To All the Boys: Always and Forever.” In between, there was last year’s “To All the Boys: P.S. I Still Love You.” (Notably, films two and three were filmed back-to-back in 2019, and so they exist in a pre-pandemic world.) But for a variety of reasons, this trilogy’s last chapter feels less like a finale and more like a cozy check in with friends.
It seems hard to believe now that, once upon a time, sequels to hit movies were not automatic. But the rise of seemingly endless sequels means practically every new movie concept is thought of as at least a trilogy. “To All the Boys I Loved Before” was a film about quirky first love that delighted because of the story’s smallness, the specificity of Lara Jean’s personality and her Korean-American family. But it was also perfect for a Netflix adaptation, as it is the first in Han’s trilogy of novels that follows Lara Jean and teen flame Peter (Noah Centineo) through their high school romance. Even if it had not become Netflix’s flagship rom-com, it was probably always going to get a follow up, because the source material came as part of a set.
But by becoming one of Netflix’s major releases, the smallness of that initial offering fell by the wayside. (Notably, the original director, Susan Johnson, also disappeared, replaced by Michael Fimognari in the second and third installments.) In “To All the Boys 2,” Lara Jean’s personality and her family were reduced to little more than “quirks” in a far more generic-feeling teen film. “To All the Boys 3” continues that erasure, which is doubly odd because the movie actually opens in Seoul, with Lara Jean on a family trip. (This is drawn from the book, in which her father wants his daughters to connect with their heritage.) But the movie isn’t interested in exploring that heritage, and after using the city for some gorgeous shots, the story hurries back to the states.
Likewise, the colleges Lara Jean and Peter apply to feel more like advertisement than real places. The original novel featured more realistic options for our middle class characters, like University of Virginia and William & Mary, complete with actual courses of study they cared about. But those aren’t broadly famous schools, their campuses aren’t as fun to film, and in this story, Lara Jean and Peter aren’t studying much (besides each other) anyway. With such low stakes, much of the drama of the books evaporates, leaving a distinct lack of overarching plot. It might make the inevitable “stay together” ending everyone wants easier to come by, but it also robs the audience of a story to be invested in. Lara Jean and Peter’s relationship can feel, at times, like little more than a pair of good-looking actors making gooey eyes at each other.
The film’s strongest moments are, once again, some of its smallest. Without much of a dramatic arc, the movie is at its best when it homes in on the kinds of teenage decisions adults no longer think about. This being the final installment, it’s now or never for the couple to have sex, and the emotional heft our society puts on girls as they make that decision is authentically portrayed.
Graduation and leaving for college is also an opportunity to explore how young adults make peace with them people who raised them. And while Lara Jean’s Korean heritage may mostly exist for gorgeous vistas, Peter’s struggle to reconcile with his estranged father is handled with genuine thoughtfulness.
So if all the viewer wants is a yearly reunion in with these characters, the movie is fine. Ironically, it’s how many sitcoms succeeded for years; as TV friends who you checked in with once a week. Netflix has been blamed for blurring the lines between television and films before, accused of turning TV shows into six or eight or even 10-hour films with its binge-watch format. This is the rare time in the streamer’s (still relatively young) life where it has put out a movie that feels like it could have been one episode in a TV series.
And perhaps that would have been a better format for Han’s works. Fans will find out soon enough, as the first novel in her other bestselling trilogy of books was is about be adapted into an eight-episode TV arc.
On the other hand, this long holiday weekend most couples (and non-coupled) will be staying in. So a comfortable hang with old friends, in pretty settings and providing easy answers, may be all we need. Happy Valentine’s Day to all the Lara Jeans we’ve loved before.