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Based on a wildly successful young adult book of the same name, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before contains a sprinkling of those tropes typical of much YA fiction—a dead parent, a charming parent, a bitch, a jock, and a character in love, perhaps a little too much, with books and their own imagination. Happily, these tropes, and any misgivings one might have about them, get swept aside both by the charms of the young actors and the tendency of the film to sit with them in moments of complicated emotion and allow them, and us, to forge a real connection with these characters.
Lara Jean (Lana Condor) is a sixteen-year-old girl in love with her older sister’s boyfriend. To deal with her tormented feelings she writes this boy a letter. She does not send it to him, though. As she says, it is only for her. It is a way to work through something for herself. In a way, she says, it has nothing to do with him.
Lara Jean is an experienced imaginer of love. She has written four other such love letters to four other such boys. She keeps them all, sealed in addressed envelopes, in a small box given to her by a long-dead mother. She might be, I suppose, writing as much to her imagined mom as she is writing to these imagined boys.
It is an error common to most—this desire to live in one’s imagined version of the world—but in the form of crushes, I think, it is an affliction most often imagined as being a disease peculiar to teenage girls, child’s play if you will. This is poppycosh, of course. Crushes are violent things. They are, often, literally crushing. You don’t have to be a boy or a girl to experience them, nor must you have a crush only on a boy or girl, either. You can have a crush on a way of life, a forgotten home, a lost parent. A crush is at heart only a longing for a world that seems impossible.
The thing you know must happen, in a story with secret letters, does happen. Lara Jean faints at her first confrontation with the consequences of her imagination. One of the boys she loved before shows up holding one of her letters and down she goes. When she comes to, there’s his big dumb real face. Beyond him, there is yet another boy she loves approaching–her sister’s recently ex-boyfriend, in fact. Lara Jean does what she believes she must. She kisses the boy with the big dumb face who she used to have a crush on in order to distract the boy she still has a crush on from knowing how she really feels about him.
There are scattered scenes throughout of Lara Jean having conversations with her imagined versions of these boys. They pop up in the hallways of school, sometimes. Mostly in her bedroom. One of them one time sees her look out the window at the real version of himself. The imagined boy tells the real girl that he knows he’s more important to her than the real boy. This is the heart of the film, I think, and I longed for more such scenes. One imagines the book is full of them. But the film does what it needs to do, I think, if not what I wanted it to do. Later on, when Lara Jean’s father speaks of her mother, we see how hard it is for him, for anyone of any age, to share what is real. “You deserve to know about who your mom really was,” he says. “But I was too sad for too long to share those things with you.”
Lana Condor had a very small, if brightly fashioned, part in X-Men Apocalypse as Jubilee—one of my favorite characters from the X-Men cartoon series I watched religiously with my sister in the early-to-mid 90s. Jubilee is a young girl in a long, bright yellow coat with giant neon hoop earrings and the power to shoot electricity from the tips of her fingers. There is something of this ability to spark that seems innate in Ms. Condor. Her face has such exquisite expressiveness, her nose the most miraculous scrunchability. You always know exactly how confused and wondrous she feels. Her arms twist in elegantly awkard arcs. She plays nervous well. And when called on to be still, she does that, too. Listen to her voice. Hear how it changes depending on who she’s talking to. You will very likely have a cursh on her by the end of the film. I imagine many boys and girls will be writing letters to her.
Sometimes I imagine everything I write is a letter to someone. In this case, I suppose, I have been writing to you.
Good luck out there, today, whoever you are, in your attempts to interact with the real world. It’s the only place where anything really happens.