to all the boys i’ve loved before (dir. susan johnson, 2018)

Hello, readers. Every Saturday I publish a selection from a monthly newsletter I’m writing for Storyological patrons called, CHRIS REVIEWS EVERYTHING. If you’d like to receive this newsletter, and so receive more of my reviews, visit the Storyological Patreon page to sign up. Thank you. That is all.

lana

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.

all good art is about something deeper than it admits

Hello, readers.

From time to time, I go back and read old reviews of the films that I love. It reminds me of why I loved those films, and it teaches me how to see those films in new ways.

Also, I love reviews, both reading them and writing them. There’s a sort of alchemy in the way the best reviewers learn to conjure both the spirit and the truth of their subjects.

Here are some of my favorite reviews.

Stephanie Zacharek, reviewing Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

The essence of romanticism, said the German writer E.T.A. Hoffman, is “infinite longing.” With the marvelous “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,” J.K. Rowling’s work has finally gotten the romantic filmmaker it deserves.

Roger Ebert reviewing Shawshank Redemption. The last paragraph is a revelation.

Darabont constructs the film to observe the story, not to punch it up or upstage it. Upstaging, in fact, is unknown in this film; the actors are content to stay within their roles, the story moves in an orderly way, and the film itself reflects the slow passage of the decades. “When they put you in that cell,” Red says, “when those bars slam home, that’s when you know it’s for real. Old life blown away in the blink of an eye. Nothing left but all the time in the world to think about it.” Watching the film again, I admired it even more than the first time I saw it. Affection for good films often grows with familiarity, as it does with music. Some have said life is a prison, we are Red, Andy is our redeemer. All good art is about something deeper than it admits.

Anthony Lane, god bless him, reviewing in the same review both Brokeback Mountain and The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe

“Brokeback Mountain,” which began as an Annie Proulx story in these pages, comes fully alive as the chance for happiness dies. Its beauty wells from its sorrow, because the love between Ennis and Jack is most credible not in the making but in the thwarting.

And, if there is Deep Magic, as Lewis called it, in his tale, it resides not in the springlike coming of Aslan but in the dreamlike, compacted poetry of Lewis’s initial inspiration—the sight of a faun, in the snow, bearing parcels and an umbrella. That is kept mercifully intact in Adamson’s movie, its potency enriched by the shy, unstrenuous rapport of his two best performers: Georgie Henley, as Lucy, and James McAvoy, as Mr. Tumnus the faun. The dark joke is that Mr. Tumnus invites Lucy to tea only because he must turn his guest over to the enemy. Thus does Lucy, over toast and honey, learn the lesson known to the heroine of every horror flick: Don’t answer the faun.

 

Happy Wednesday, readers.

 

ttfn.

unfilmable

 

Kevin Nguyen, writing at GQ, on adapting Ted Chiang’s short story, “Story of Your Life” into the film Arrival.

Arrival is every bit as sophisticated as its short story origins, and magnificently translated into 2016’s best piece of cerebral science fiction. Amy Adams brings a precise, introspective performance to the film’s hero linguist Dr. Louise Banks. Villeneuve (Sicario, next year’s Blade Runner sequel) conjures intimacy and muted tensions to a film of global scale. But it’s arguably the script by Eric Heisserer that demands the most recognition for how it translates Chiang’s high-concept sci-fi so effortlessly.

Or at least it looks effortless on screen. The script took Heisserer six years to write. To get the rights to the adaptation, he required Chiang’s approval, so he worked on spec—meaning that he worked on it for free, and would only be paid if Chiang sanctioned it after it was completed. “It was the most stressful pitch of my whole career,” Heisserer said. “I lived with it for so many years.”

Listen to Carmen.

And, if you’re interested in Storyological’s discussion of Ted Chiang’s short fiction, listen to that here.