To All the Boys: Always and Forever is little more than a love letter to itself: Review
It's a little bit of a miracle that 2018's To All the Boys I've Loved Before works quite so well as it does. An adaptation of Jenny Han's YA novel of the same name and one of the better titles to come out of Netflix's "summer of love," Susan Johnson's tender teen rom-com is so heartfelt, it almost seems breakable — and yet by the end of it, the sweet little movie's broken you.
That film, about an incurably romantic teenage girl whose secret stash of basically hypothetical love letters gets unexpectedly distributed and sparks a relationship with one of the recipients, proved so irresistible to the streamer's audiences that it prompted the production of two sequels, also based on Han's books. The first, last year's To All the Boys: P.S. I Still Love You, sees our heroine Lara Jean (Lana Condor) reunite with another letter addressee but ultimately choose to stay with her first love, the original film's instant heartthrob of the high school movie canon, Peter Kavinsky (Noah Centineo). The final part in the trilogy, which hits Netflix this Valentine's weekend, follows the besotted pair as they graduate and head off to college, which just might spell the end for their romance.
After watching Always and Forever, I don't much care if it does. The threequel, directed by Michael Fimognari (who also helmed P.S. I Still Love You) from a script by Katie Lovejoy, really doesn't seem to know what to do with its central couple now that they are firmly together, unimpeded by errant love letters. This trilogy is their love story, and when its obstacles were just silly little things — namely, other people — it was sweetly gratifying to watch them repeatedly choose each other. Now their solid relationship faces a big and real challenge: their own futures.
Peter has, unbelievably, gotten into Stanford on a lacrosse scholarship. Lara Jean awaits her own acceptance, while dismissing the Berkeley and NYU applications she submitted as distasteful empty gestures rather than possible gateways to an inspiring education at an elite university. (There are no safety schools, and no financial concerns.) Always and Forever fumbles its approach to Lara Jean's college decision crisis, taking far too long to grant this moment in her life the significance it deserves — except in terms of her relationship. It's a disservice to a character that had previously been depicted as a creative, independent dreamer. She finally does get excited about a cliché other than proximity to her boyfriend, but by then it's too late; every time she blandly mentions a liberal arts institution's "lit program," I am less convinced she has read a single pamphlet.
The success of the two previous films relied heavily on the considerable charms and chemistry of Condor and Centineo, but the new one doesn't display their appeal so much as it refers to it. Most of their scenes together are brutally mushy, half of them incorporating some acknowledgment of how very cute they are. Both actors, especially Centineo, return to the familiar roles with a winking sort of "remember me?" The film reduces each of them to their quirks — we get it, Lara Jean likes baked goods — as if to remind its viewers that these are the characters they loved once before, rather than trying to make anyone love them at this moment in their lives. (The same goes for most of the other characters, though John Corbett, as Lara Jean's sweetly goofy dad, is excused.)
Where To All the Boys wore its heart on its sleeve, Always and Forever wears its production value. Everything about it is as name-brand as the universities LJ just might deign to attend; nary a scene goes by that does not incorporate a snippet of a popular song, and the film opens with a deeply unnecessary sequence shot in photogenic Seoul, where poor Condor must deliver a shockingly clumsy line about how she doesn't speak the language, so despite physically fitting in, "it's like I don't belong." (But don't worry — never again does the film attempt to address her cultural identity, because her relationship status is really the only concern that it wants us to have.)
Cloying though it is, Always and Forever does understand how all-consuming first love can be, how bittersweet graduation, how scary choosing one's own path. Mercifully, the film ultimately makes the right decisions for its heroes (though it takes two or three false endings) despite the messy road getting there. It's a shame, though, that what was once a bit of an underdog love story, rendered all in dreamy blues and quiet feelings, has been blown up into a tricked-out globetrotting fantasy of gooey devotion. To that rom-com I loved before: You're still a winner. Always and forever. C+
To All the Boys: Always and Forever hits Netflix Feb. 12.