Dan Jacobson reviews the sequel to the Netflix smash hit.
In the very first scene of To All The Boys: P.S. I Still Love You, Kitty, the younger sister of main character Lara Jean, tells her that “It’s not the time to dream of being in an 80’s movie.” Lara Jean is about to go on her first date with her new boyfriend, the dreamy-yet-jock-yet-16-yet-emotionally-mature Peter Kavinsky, and she is dreaming of John Cusack with a boom box and Heath Ledger singing ‘Can’t Take My Eyes Off You’. Kitty’s comment perfectly encapsulates the challenges Lara Jean is about to face, and the central ethos of the film itself.
To All The Boys I Loved Before – the 2018 predecessor to P.S. I Still Love You – was a smash hit. Over a single summer, alongside Set It Up and Crazy Rich Asians, the film managed (for an albeit brief time) to make romantic comedies relevant again. Atypically, the film did not do this by subverting or redefining the norms of the genre (although the visibility of Asian actors is undoubtedly praiseworthy). Instead, director Susan Johnson created a movie that – utilising the ‘Fake-Dating’ high school movie template – acted as a fresh and unapologetic homage to the films and stories which inspired it.
This inspiration is alluded to directly through Lara Jean’s love of John Hughes’ Sixteen Candles, despite the obscene stereotyping of the character Long Duk Dong. In fact, there are references to the past 30 years of romcom history everywhere; from Lara Jean’s impeccable fashion taste echoing Ferris Bueller’s Day Off’s Sloane Peterson and Clueless’ Cher Horowitz, to the vibrant pastels found in Legally Blonde and Grease. Whilst an inability to move away from the influences worn on a film’s sleeve can imply unoriginality (Joker, anyone?), To All The Boys managed to use these references in a way that produced a feel-good and heart-warming film. If the filmmakers had simply chosen to repeat the first film when making the sequel, that would have been more than enough for me.
I’m still not sure whether or not they tried to repeat themselves, but whatever happened, the spark has been buried. I hope it isn’t buried too far, because the third and final film in the franchise is in post-production. But I can’t find it.
At its centre, P.S. I Still Love You tells the story of a love triangle, one of the most popular romantic tropes of all time. After Lara Jean begins dating Peter, a crush from many years earlier – John Ambrose – comes back into her life when they both opt to volunteer at a retirement centre. The rest is self-explanatory. However, the sequel suffers from one key flaw: a juicy plot is favored over consistency and coherency. The entirety of the first film presented Peter as “perfect”; he is sensitive, respectful, and drinks kombucha at house parties. Now, to further the plot, the second movie has to undo all of that hard work. It’s an unfortunate crux that simultaneously reaffirms what made the first film so loveable, and the resulting sequel feels nothing but forced.
The contrived character development is evidenced in Peter’s brand new set of flaws, which pop up sporadically throughout the film’s first half. He is late to meet Lara Jean in a busy café. He always takes the last cupcake or slice of pizza. And, most importantly, he still seems to have feelings for his ex, Gen (this was also his sole flaw in the previous film, where we also learn that Lara Jean’s fears are unfounded). Additionally, John Ambrose is presented as flawlessly as Peter was. Maybe I, like most of the Internet, fell too easily under the spell of Peter, but I spent the entire film just waiting for Lara Jean to confirm that it is Peter who she loves after all.
Unfortunately, this laziness pervades too many aspects of P.S. I Still Love You. The film is driven almost entirely by voiceovers, giving the film an air of a 90-minute game of connect-the-dots, for which the final image is, somehow, exactly the same image as the one before. The soundtrack is boring and repetitive, anchored by soulless synth-pop ballads, whilst the previous film’s flawless blend of indie rock, electronic funk, and brooding dream pop – with ‘Everybody Wants To Rule The World’ thrown in for very, very good measure – was intrinsic in its fresh tone and modern feel. Oh, and the final scene has snow. SNOW! From out of nowhere. Seriously, nobody is wearing a coat. As I have mentioned, I have nothing against pandering to beloved rom-com tropes, but this one takes the freshly baked, Valentine’s Day snickerdoodle.
Where I will defend P.S. I Still Love You is in its continuation of the legacy established by its predecessor as somewhat “post-critic.” At its centre, the To All The Boys films are about love; the representations of young romantic love, sisterhood, and father-daughter love displayed by the characters, and also a love of love evidenced by the filmmakers. This love extends to television and music as well. Jane the Virgin, for example, has developed a cult following and critical success based on a love of insane Latin American telenovelas, alongside episode-length odes to Sex and the City, Fifty Shades of Grey, and The Bachelorette, to name a few (a Bachelorette-themed episode is how you do a love triangle). Artists like Charli XCX and Carly Rae Jepsen, who began the 2010s being presented as tween-pop, radio-darling, computer-generated one-hit-wonders, are now (rightfully) hailed as the most innovative pop stars of their generation. This “love” is not the voyeuristic schadenfreude of Love Island, or the ironic camp-worship of The Room – this is genuine, unashamed love.
The ubiquity of social media means that not only is everyone given a platform to air their opinions of films and music, but that we are exposed to these opinions more than ever before. This has caused a paradigm shift away from the dated, male-centric art criticism of bygone years, where ‘prestige TV’ was immediately lauded and any female-led shows were glossed over as ‘guilty pleasures’ or ‘candy’. In an interview with Vox, TV critic Emily Nussbaum says, “If it’s pink or brightly colored, fun or funny, or related in some way to soap operas, it’s coded as female, whether it’s female or not.” As a straight man with a love for romantic comedies, my perception of shows and films like this has evolved from “I’ve never heard of it” to “I don’t watch it” to “I enjoyed it” to “This is excellent.” If a show or film truly is worthy of praise, its genre should be irrelevant.
We haven’t reached equal respect for all genres just yet, but films like To All The Boys I Loved Before are rectifying this. I don’t know whether P.S. I Still Love You will cause a positive or even negative response in this regard, but the public’s anticipation for the film is proof that we are at least heading in the right direction. Like Lara Jean, I say we don’t need to hide our love of 80’s movies anymore. Whilst I may come to regret these words, I cannot wait for the next one.
To All The Boys: P.S. I Still Love You is available to stream on Netflix worldwide. Check out the trailer below: