'To All The Boys' Proves The Rom-Com Is Alive And Kissing

The film's wild response proves the genre has a resilience of which few others can boast.

There’s this bone-puncturing warmth you get watching To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before, Netflix’s latest original film offering. It's like a rough hug from a parent, or a long night spent with a friend with whom you’d previously fallen out of contact. It grips you, sweet and savvy, and holds on tight.

The film, based on Jenny Han’s teen romance novel, chronicles the misadventures of Lara Jean Covey (Lana Condor), when the secret love letters to boys she’s secretly crushed on are rescued from the back of her closet and sent out to five unsuspecting teen-boy suitors. One, Josh (Israel Broussard), is her sister’s ex-boyfriend (whoops!). Another is the school’s resident “king of the cafeteria crowd”: dashing jock Peter Kavinsky (Noah Centineo).

Hijinks piled on hijinks later, and Lara Jean finds herself in a fake relationship --masking percolating real feelings, of course -- with Peter (somehow concocted to throw off Josh’s suspicions and to perturb Peter’s mean-girl ex-girlfriend. I promise it makes sense in context). It’s a classic rom-com bungle!

And so what? Doesn’t Netflix release dozens of new films every few months? What’s so special about To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before?

Internet metrics will tell you that, yes, something is very special about the new Netflix film. Within just hours of its release, armies of Tweeters, Instagrammers and Facebookers had taken to their online platform of choice to declare their love for the gentle, pastel-filtered film and its two sparkling leads, Condor and Centineo.

True, To All The Boys didn’t burst onto the scene like many other bonafide (American) summer hits -- and besides, Crazy Rich Asians has already reserved most of the column inches any news outlet will concede to a romantic comedy with an Asian lead this year. Before its release, just a drop of critic-driven hype had built up around the film, with Vulture declaring it “the summer’s best rom-com”. But in a way, that’s characteristic of the film itself, it has nevertheless twirled into the collective cultural consciousness over just one weekend, and driven a large portion of us to distraction.

And it’s not just that the film is excellent  -- a sweet and shrewd homage to the epicness of teen romance, beautifully shot by Michael Fimognari and costumed to perfection by Rafaella Rabinovich, so every outfit speaks to character and context. It’s also that it signals the resilience of a genre so many of us cherish, but which has been derided by studios and critics alike for over a decade.

Perhaps it’s just my own private internet bubble, but I can barely scroll for 20 seconds before I hit another gushing declaration of love for the film, for Lana Condor or for Peter Kavinsky. My feeds are clogged with gifs, photos, articles and all-caps reviews of the film, giving an impression of mounting hysteria for the little rom-com that could.

Part of the magic of To All The Boys radiates from Condor, who is a natural screen idol. As Lara Jean, she’s patently adorable: all bundled neuroses and electrifying emotions and kooky facial expressions. But, unlike others who might take on a similar role and twist it into manic-pixie adorkability, Condor (with the aid of Han’s characterisation and Susan Johnson’s buoyant direction) never veers away from Lara Jean’s relatable humanness.

And it is refreshing, and radical, to see the part occupied by a young Asian-American star Han revealed, in an essay for the New York Times, that almost every single production company that offered to option the film had plans to put a white star in the role of Lara Jean, who is Korean-American. Only Netlfix pledged to cast an Asian girl as the lead.

“There is power in seeing a face that looks like yours do something, be someone," Han writes.

"There is power in moving from the sidelines to the centre."

And there’s a thrill of recognition as you watch the divine Condor, whose bright, inquiring charm drives much of the enjoyment of To All The Boys, commanding a role that would so often be dolled out to a white ingenue. A thrill that comes from imagining all the girls who’ll watch her and finally see themselves reflected back on the screen.

But with any good rom-com, it takes two to tango. And Condor is fortunate to have a co-star just as effervescent and charming as she is to match her quip for quip: Noah Centineo’s delightful and instantly meme-able Peter Kavinsky.

If there’s one thing that can sink rom-coms in this contemporary age, it’s casting. Take another of Netflix’s recent romantic ventures, the inexplicably successful Set It Up. It’s a fine enough entry to the genre, of course, but galling for thinking it could stick two bland leads (Zoey Deutch and Glen Powell) in roles with admittedly decent dialogue and muddle through, lack of chemistry be damned. No matter how funny the one-liners, nor how well you’ve curated and recreated the rom-com tropes, if your romantic leads don’t pop together on-screen, well… what are we all here for?

Condor and Centineo are born stars, and they bounce effortlessly off each other like rubber balls on a handball court. Their chemistry recalls that of the great Heath Ledger and Julia Stiles in 10 Thing I Hate About You -- a pairing so good, they could’ve read the phone book to each other for two hours and you’d have remained transfixed regardless.

Centineo has some of Ledger’s raw magnetism, actually, and his undercurrent of searching vulnerability. He’s also been compared to another rom-com great, Mark Ruffalo, because they share a broad-faced brooding look and a rough-voiced charm.

The wild response to the film proves that the rom-com film has a resilience of which few other genres can boast. Despite the major studios largely abandoning the format, and every critic alive declaring the death of the rom-com film a dozen times over, fans have lived in hope that a few superlative entries to the genre would revive the rom-com to its former cultural glory.

The outrageous and near-instantaneous popularity of To All The Boys, along with the enormous success in the US of the much-anticipated Crazy Rich Asians, gives hardcore rom-com devotees a glimpse of such a future.

Feature Image: Getty