‘To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before’: How Come Teens Get All the Rom-Coms Today?

Three decades ago, To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before would have been released in theaters.

In fact, it was. It was released several times, under different titles, all directed by John Hughes.

That was 1986. This is 2018, movie theaters don’t do old-school rom-coms any more and John Hughes, alas, has passed away. Fortunately, the descendants of 1980s Hughes films like Sixteen Candles and Pretty In Pink have found a new home at places like Netflix, which has just released To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before on the country’s most popular streaming service.

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Noel Centineo and Lana Condor in “To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before.”

To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before follows the drama of a teenager, Lara Jean Covey (Lana Condor), trying to sort out friendship and love in the minefield of high school.

We’ve met all the characters in Lara Jean’s world before, including next-door neighbor pal Josh (Israel Broussard), popular jock Peter (Noel Centineo), smart gay friend Lucas (Trezzo Mahoro), fast-talking younger sister Kitty (Anna Cathcart), best friend Christine (Madeleine Arthur) and popular girl Gen (Emilijia Baranac).

Mostly because we do know the players, and can guess what a lot of them will be doing, To All The Boys will strike some folks as another teen melodrama, the kind that’s been the cornerstone of, to name one traditional TV network, Freeform.

The thing is, a bunch of Freeform shows — and others in the genre — have been quite good. While the plots may have formulaic elements, they deal with subjects that are visceral to teenagers, from romantic drama to diversity, social media, sexual identity and outliers.

There are things there that almost all of us remember, even if we’d rather forget, and one dirty little secret is that many of us still wrestle with those same issues years later, just maybe with a little more perspective.

Still, it remains true that To All The Boys will be slotted as Young Adult drama, if only because that’s the category under which Jenny Han’s original novel, on which the film is closely based, spent 40 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list and was translated into 30 languages.

The implication of that success is that in YA fiction, as in any genre, some stories resonate more deeply than others. Like, say, Twilight, To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before speaks to an audience that stretches beyond teens and tweens.

Condor, who at 21 may be best known from X-Men: Apocalypse, can still play high school, which isn’t the case with the characters in all high school dramas. She captures how easily teenagers can feel isolated, and the ways in which they deal with that unsettling cloud.

In Lara Jean’s case, she writes letters to boys on whom she has had crushes over the last few years. She has no intention of sending them. It’s her avenue for expression, not unlike a diary.

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Lara Jean, Kitty and Peter, cruising.

One day, mysteriously, the letters are gone from the teal box in which she has kept them hidden. Inevitably they reach several of the boys to whom they were addressed, and inevitably Lara Jean feels like a figurative safe has just fallen out of a fifth-floor window and landed on her life.

Yes, it’s the Unintended Reveal, a plot device as old as romantic comedy itself. It’s the means by which a character who is afraid to admit a feeling or emotion does it anyway, thus blowing open the door to a resolution.

And no, folks, it isn’t only teenagers whose lives are redirected by the Unintended Reveal. Think Shakespeare. Think Julia Roberts in My Best Friend’s Wedding. That’s why To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before doesn’t play only as teen drama.

Framing it that way just makes it more intense, because the first go-round for any emotion is the point where it feels as if it has never happened to anyone else before, ever.

At a time when movie theaters and high-profile television often seem dominated by intense, dark dramas like The Avengers and The Walking Dead and The Handmaid’s Tale, an unapologetic romantic drama like To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before needs to be part of the mix — not because it’s the best or most original production ever, but because it lets you walk away feeling better. Even if you’re not 13.

David Hinckley wrote for the New York Daily News for 35 years. Now he drives his wife crazy by randomly quoting Bob Dylan and “Casablanca.”

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