When Netflix released its adaptation of Jenny Han’s young adult novel To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before in the fall of 2018, the teen romance filled a void that had been steadily growing since the decline of both the teen movie and the romantic comedy in the early 2000s. Its highly anticipated follow-up, To All the Boys: P.S. I Still Love You, now streaming on Netflix, taps into the first film’s inherent charm and sweetness, as the love story between Lana Condor‘s hopelessly romantic Lara Jean Covey and Noah Centineo‘s popular lacrosse player Peter Kavinsky remains a wholesome, romantic escape (even if it probably gives young women false expectations for teen boys). But the stakes are also higher for sequels, and that’s just as true for a film based on a beloved YA trilogy as it is a summer blockbuster. New conflicts must arise in order to keep the story moving forward and ensure character growth, but the difference is that the problems Lara Jean faces in the new film, including the arrival of Jordan Fisher‘s John Ambrose McClaren, another recipient of one of her infamous love letters, are problems we’re not necessarily accustomed to seeing in this genre and with this particular medium.
The traditional rom-com dictates that, in order to preserve the protagonist’s (and therefore our) happiness, the story ends when the central couple reaches their happily-ever-after moment. No one wants to acknowledge the truth of what comes next: that the couple we longed to see get together will inevitably struggle as their relationship progresses and evolves and they grow as individuals. But it’s what happens, especially in the constantly changing and complicated world of high school romance, so Lara Jean and Peter face a new string of complications after finally getting together at the end of the first film. But the movie’s weakness isn’t that issues continue to exist, it’s that the film, written by Sofia Alvarez and J. Mills Goodloe, doesn’t give these issues proper narrative weight.
One of the biggest drivers of conflict in the novel — the video of Lara Jean and Peter making out in the hot tub — was already resolved in the first film. As such, the biggest obstacle for Lara Jean’s relationship with Peter in the sequel is the sudden reappearance of John Ambrose, a childhood friend who moved before the start of high school. After receiving Lara Jean’s love letter that her sister Kitty (Anna Cathcart) sent out in the first film, John writes her back, reigniting latent feelings for both parties. Then, by happenstance (and in a change from the novel), Lara Jean and John end up volunteering together at Belleview, a nursing home that more closely resembles a luxurious mansion than the sterile and depressing nursing homes of the real world. In this neutral setting, away from the prying eyes of their peers, the two quietly rekindle their friendship, and just like that, Lara Jean is questioning her new relationship with Peter and wondering if it’s possible to love two people at the same time.
But John’s arrival in Lara Jean’s life isn’t the only thing that threatens her still new relationship; Peter’s ex-girlfriend and Lara Jean’s former best friend, Genevieve (Emilija Baranac), remains a big part of Peter’s life, which leads to feelings of jealousy and insecurity for Lara Jean. Only… we don’t really ever see Peter and Gen together, nor do we hear much about their continued friendship. Having already resolved the hot tub video incident in the first film, the only instances in which Gen ever appears in this film are the few times she flaunts the fact she was Peter’s first love in Lara Jean’s face. It’s only when, more than halfway through the one-hour-and-42-minute film, Lara Jean’s best friend, Chris (Madeleine Arthur), shows her a photo of Peter and Gen locked in an embrace that the movie attempts to give this particular storyline any real weight.
Unfortunately, it’s too little, too late. Not only does Gen not feel like a real threat to Lara Jean’s relationship, but the film’s erasure of most of her storyline from the novel means when the two young women inevitably come face-to-face near the end of the film, the emotional power this moment should carry is absent, meaning the subsequent lesson that Lara Jean learns about how it was she, not Peter, who needed to get over her past with Gen falls flat as well.
To see Lara Jean and Genevieve’s story limited to what feels like five to 10 minutes of the film ultimately shortchanges Han’s novel, which spends a great deal of time discussing friendships and how people come together and fall apart as they grow up. To All the Boys: P.S. I Still Love You isn’t about Lara Jean and Peter or Lara Jean and John Ambrose or Peter and Genevieve. It’s about Lara Jean’s past bleeding into her present, and about her realizing what she wants out of her life and relationships in the here and now (with a slight hint at the future, which will be covered in the third and final film, Always and Forever, Lara Jean). To limit Lara Jean’s story to a love triangle (or rhombus) — and a love triangle (or rhombus) that is even more lopsided on screen than it was in the book — is to do a disservice to the character of Lara Jean.
Of course, if you’ve never read the novel and don’t realize you’re only getting half of the story, your mileage may vary. Condor and Centineo remain inherently charming, and there is still plenty of the first film’s sweet and pure version of romance on display, like when Lara Jean and Peter go on their first real date, when they celebrate Valentine’s Day, or when they promise, rather naively, to not break each other’s hearts. Meanwhile, Holland Taylor‘s Stormy, a fiery woman who lives at Belleview and who advises Lara Jean on the complicated matters of the heart, is a welcome addition to the cast, even if the writers did swap the novel’s USO-themed party at the nursing home for a simple ball, losing some of the vivid magic of Han’s world in the process.
In the end, you have to ask yourself what you want to get out of a film like this. If the answer is nothing more than a simple romantic escape, To All the Boys: P.S. I Still Love You is a charming film that again calls back to the more innocent nature of the classic teen movies of the ’80s that Lara Jean herself loves so much. If it’s a faithful adaptation of Han’s novel that doesn’t shortchange its characters and the conflicts that lead to their ongoing evolution, well, just be sure to manage your expectations accordingly.
TV Guide Rating: 3/5
To All the Boys: P.S. I Still Love You is now streaming on Netflix.