I can’t stay silent anymore. “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” is an awful movie. It was painful to watch, and now the pain continues every day that I am forced to see meme after meme of Peter Kavinsky and his stupid yogurt. Am I a cheerless hag who won’t let anyone enjoy things, not even Noah Centineo? Yes. Am I a “race traitor”? If failing to fawn over this expired chicken salad of a Netflix Original makes me one, then yes, a resounding yes.
For those of you who have forgotten the details of a very forgettable film, “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” goes something like this: Lara Jean Covey (pronounced “COVE-ee” or “CUH-vee” — no one in the movie seems to be sure), a lonely teen with a penchant for mass-market erotica, finds herself friendless when her sister Margot leaves for college. One of Lara Jean’s few hobbies is writing — but never sending — love letters to boys she likes. So Kitty, her younger sister, decides to get the plot moving by mailing these letters to their addressees, including Peter Kavinsky, who was recently dumped by Lara Jean’s Regina George-esque ex-friend Gen, and Josh Sanderson, Margot’s ex-boyfriend. When Peter and Josh confront Lara Jean about the letters, she decides to confuse Josh by mounting and forcibly kissing Peter in one of the most lighthearted scenes of sexual assault I’ve ever seen. Peter decides to reject Lara Jean’s advances by hitting on her. He eventually suggests that Lara Jean pretend to be his girlfriend so that Gen will be jealous and Josh will forget about the letter he received. Lara Jean accepts this proposal, and — who’d a thunk! — she and Peter begin to fall for each other.
I’m not going to bash “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” for its hokey premise because the problem isn’t that it’s a cheesy rom-com. The problem is that it’s an agonizingly bad rom-com — tomato-throwing bad, let’s-power-through-the-next-hour bad.
First of all, why is it never addressed that Peter Kavinsky is a crappy dude? I’m all for villains, antiheroes, and morally ambiguous characters, but why does the movie position Peter as an uncomplicated romantic hero if he’s so clearly a jerk? Peter, you’re not supposed to have sleepovers with Gen if you’re dating someone else. It doesn’t matter that you kept it in your pants. And if you’ve always known that Gen is a meanie and you kept silent because you were dating her, that puts you at Melania levels of complicity. If I were more generous, I would interpret Peter’s unacknowledged assholery as a subtle indictment of the way passably attractive straight white men are rarely punished for their transgressions, but I am not that generous. This movie wants us to think that Peter Kavinsky is a dream boyfriend because he can buy Yakult and recognize the blatant racism in “Sixteen Candles.” I’m not here for it.
Second of all, what’s up with the casting in this movie? Peter Kavinsky looks like the Pokemon evolution of Josh Sanderson. And why are the teenage characters so consistently played by adult actors? Is it labor laws? A desire to avoid the ickiness of adult viewers fawning over underage actors? A need to draw in viewers with actors who are heartthrob material (i.e. Noah Centineo) and therefore not stricken by the ineluctable ugliness of mid-adolescence? I just don’t understand why movie teenagers can’t look like real teenagers.
Third of all, why is every interaction between Peter and Lara Jean so cringey? There’s one particularly bad scene in which Peter and Lara Jean discuss her dead mother and his absent father and bond through mutual vulnerability and whatnot. This may seem innocuous enough, but Noah Centineo and Lana Condor (who play Peter and Lara Jean, respectively) really muck up an already shoddily written scene with their middle school play-tier acting. I get it, guys, pauses can be pregnant with meaning! They can indicate lots of things, like deep thought, emotional turmoil, and an extremely limited arsenal of acting techniques. I’m no actor myself, but surely there are better ways to show that a character is revealing something big and painful than to stare slightly into space, shake one’s head slowly, and insert a beat between every other clause.
Fourth of all — and I might lose some of you here — I could not stand this movie’s treatment of Lara Jean’s mother. An hour and 20 minutes in, there’s a scene in which Lara Jean and her father hang out in a diner and talk about what a cool and quirky gal the late Mrs. Covey was. She played songs on repeat and danced in diners! What an absolute riot! Turns out that if you’re a screenwriter and you want to show that a woman has a personality, you needn’t deign to write her one: Simply have a male character describe a random handful of her idiosyncrasies and you’re all set! If we were to employ a feminist postcolonial reading of this film, we might say that Mrs. Covey is a representation of the silenced subaltern woman, and that her portrayal in the movie reifies and reproduces the subjugation of such women. Our knowledge of her is mediated largely through the perspective of Dr. Covey; that Dr. Covey’s specialty is gynecology (a practice that undoubtedly helps women but is also marred by a continuing history of sexual abuse and male control of female bodies) also merits further exploration. I’m not saying Lara Jean shouldn’t have had a dead mother — I just wish the film’s representation of Mrs. Covey weren’t so hollow and filtered so substantially through Dr. Covey’s perspective alone.
I was going to indulge my cruelty with a fifth of all and a sixth of all, but I think I’ve made my point clear. Let us accept that “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” is a bad movie so that finally, finally, we — and all the interns at Esquire — can move on with our lives.
—Staff writer Angela F. Hui can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @angelafhui.