Netflix’s original romantic comedy, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, took the internet and all of its fangirls by storm. Though clichéd in parts and still following the admittedly generic rom-com outline, the movie brings to light a message that might be harmful for future films in the genre. For those in need of a brief refresher on the movie — Lara Jean is a teenager in high school who reads too many fantasy novels and has a crush on her sister’s boyfriend, Josh, who used to be her best friend. She also writes love letters whenever she has an extreme crush on someone. Her sister breaks up with Josh when she leaves for college and Lara Jean’s letters get mailed out to her crushes by her younger sister. To avoid Josh confronting her about the letter, she kisses Peter, who also got a letter from her. Lara Jean and Peter then start “dating” to keep up the façade, but they end up falling for each other.
But there’s something that’s always bothered me about the metacognitive nature of this movie and its message. On one hand, the protagonist develops and grows to stop fantasizing and compartmentalizing her desires and share her feelings to fulfill her dreams. At the same time, this movie is a prime example of the compartmentalization of emotions and romance.
Movies since the beginning have embedded themselves into the American lifestyle as a form of escapism. From times of strife and depression to times of mundane triviality, movies, not unlike books, are there to offer us respite. They take us away to far-off places and make us feel emotions that we ourselves have perhaps been dulled to or just not experienced in our own lives. We can vicariously live a life better, more exciting, more tangible, more heartfelt, more everything than our own. Their ease of access and our fascination with dreaming is what has allowed the movie industry to remain so relevant and commercially successful since its soundless, black-andwhite birth all those years ago.
Romantic comedies are those movies that are e
ndless in their production because of the escape they offer. They allow us to reminisce about old flames and imagine future flings, dream of saying “I do” and envision happily ever afters, all from the comfort of our secluded, sheltered, and cushioned movie seats. Well perhaps not all that secluded should they be accompanied by another warm movie seat adjacent, but let’s face it; rom-com watchers are hardly ever there for a date. Rom-coms are the movie analog to sad songs we shove down our throats when already sad. Netflix in particular saw the easy formula (meet-cute + unplanned meetings + banter – fleshed-out character = easy cash) and target demographic for rom-coms and now exploits it far better than any previous studio. The best part about their exploitation is that Netflix doesn’t even try to hide their capitalist motivations. There is no façade when it comes to most of their movies like Set it Up or A Christmas Prince where they even go so far as to self-reference themselves as a cheesy rom-com. But To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before is probably the most ambitious in nature when it comes to self-referencing that typical rom-com formula, mainly because it is, in essence, trying to show why that formula is so effective in the first place.
The reason is because we hide ourselves and our feelings by watching rom-coms. They allow us to vicariously experience a fulfilled love life without taking the risks ourselves. Bundled in blankets and never having to put our own emotions on the line, they help us escape our own tragedies and failures with romance, or so says this romantic.
That’s exactly what Lara Jean does in the movie. She uses her romance novels to live out her fantasies in a safe place where there isn’t a chance of her getting hurt. The opening scene of the movie itself is one of Lara Jean’s fantasies as she imagines being in a field with her sister’s boyfriend/her own ex-best friend. Her letters enable her to vomit her feelings when she has a crush so intense that she doesn’t know what else to do. She clearly does not recognize that the only other thing to do is to just tell them. She uses the letters as her own form of self-empowerment and she also goes back to read them, as to remind herself of how powerful her emotions can be. It seems truly and utterly tragic to me that she cannot understand that her emotions and feelings could have an actual impact on her life but she is willing to live passively watching as life moves around her without taking any of the action herself. Lara Jean buries her love, emotions, lust, passion, yearning, whatever hormones that teenagers are prone to, and longing into her letters that she never sends. And on top of it all, she incessantly reads romance novels all to escape from her own inability to express herself.
To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before is unique in the simple fact that it explores a level of metacognition unknown to any previous rom-com I’ve seen. It knows it’s a romantic comedy, with all the traditional troupes and wit and trivial drama, and yet portrays a message of getting over and beyond romantic comedies/fantasizing in general through Lara Jean’s character development. The whole message of To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before is about putting yourself out there, no matter the risk of heartbreak or injury to pride. And yet, the movie itself is an example of hiding ourselves away. It enables and yet tells us not to enable ourselves in the same 99 minutes. The utter hypocrisy of watching a movie that allows you to escape reality and tell you not to do what you are doing is utterly captivating. And really, I think it’s dangerous. The thing with movies is that we can live another life through them and this movie is no different. Living through Lara Jean is believing that we too are past the point of hiding our emotions in love letters and romance novels and rom-coms. It is believing that we have gone through the same character development when in reality we haven’t moved a muscle. The duality in understanding this movie is that either you take a message back with you about waking up and living life with all your passion and emotion or it’s seeing someone else do it and being content not having to do it yourself.
So, there is a part of this movie that could potentially ruin the whole rom-com industry if the audience were to accept the main message of the movie and stop living their lives through others. However, there’s a far greater portion of the audience where a message from a teenage rom-com isn’t really going to shake up their whole life. And even more so, the movie is leading a part of us to believe that, vicariously, we are no longer burying ourselves in daydreams and fantasies. This is the reason that this movie is so commercially successful but not genre-changing. The movie still sells itself as a casual rom-com by covering its own powerful message behind half-decent repartee, barely fleshed out side characters and a script more focused on the dynamics of high school drama than the interpersonal relationships they affect. And so, at the end of the day it just becomes another of Netflix’s many offbeat, cheeky, and formulaic romantic comedies.
On the other hand, let’s believe for a second that we do come out of watching this movie and suddenly feel like making a change and no longer want to bury ourselves in rom-coms or daydreams. How do we peel ourselves away from that protective layer of cheesy pick-up lines and meet-cutes? Lara Jean is pushed into it by her nosy, manipulative, and honestly annoyingly popular little sister. But what about us? The ones with normal unassuming little sisters? Without someone that is willing to push us off that terrible fall of fear that resides between our ledge of false hope and that canyon of pain and misery?
Really there’s no easy way to come across closure and getting over the things that make us want to protect ourselves. We are insecure and misinformed. And those of us that seem to not have found that deep-settled insecurity are some form of demi-god surely or more likely have hidden it better than the rest of us could put the energy into doing. Overcoming our own fears and insecurities is a feat I have neither the experience to explain nor the sheer willpower to try to. But if I were to guess at the first steps to putting ourselves out there, to not hiding behind a wall, it would be to accept that we have created a wall. I’m sure Plato had a better way of putting it in his Allegory of the Cave, but knowing that we are not living our lives to the potential they deserve is a necessary acknowledgement to one day living them to their fullest. At the end of the day, rom-coms are just easy escapes but at some point – far, far in the future – we have to come to terms with what we are escaping from.
I guess I’m off to watch the next movie now. Hopefully, it will fill my void a little longer.