The trilogy’s conclusion confirms that ‘To All the Boys’ should have stopped after the first movie.
2018’s To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before was a surprising and delightful YA rom-com concoction. It was bright, colorful, and completely endearing as Lara Jean Covey (Lana Condor) and Peter Kavinsky (Noah Centineo) had a fake romance that blossomed into a real one. It had stakes, tension, and discovery while still feeling fresh and a needed shot-in-the-arm to all the teen romance stories it sought to emulate. But its success brought two more sequels (also based on the books by Jenny Han) with last year’s To All the Boys: P.S. I Still Love You and now the trilogy’s concluding chapter To All the Boys: Always and Forever. Sadly, the series has dramatically diminishing returns as the maintenance of Lara Jean and Peter’s relationship has never proved as interesting as its formation. While Always and Forever offers a real obstacle to their relationship—what it means for a high school romance when college looms—the final installment feels like it’s dragging itself to the finish line and hoping it can dazzle the audience with enough travel montages and bright colors to obscure the fact that we should have left these characters at Happily Ever After.
Lara Jean and Peter are in their senior year of high school and their current plan is to go to Stanford together. Peter has already been admitted on an athletic scholarship, and Lara Jean thinks once they get in together nothing will stop their romance. However, Lara Jean gets rejected from Stanford, which makes her fear that she and Peter won’t be able to stay together. That strain is further compounded during a senior trip where Lara Jean falls for NYU and believes that could be a much better place than her safety school, Berkeley (her grades must have been amazing). But moving across the country rather than an hour away from Stanford could be the death knell for Lara Jean and Peter’s relationship.
What makes Always and Forever such a frustrating film is that it wants to have it both ways with Lara Jean and Peter’s relationship as the most important thing in the world but also Lara Jean going on a journey of personal growth and self-discovery. Perhaps I’m looking in the wrong place by asking a YA romance to play honestly with teenage conflict, but while the plot is asking Lara Jean to grow up, the tone of the film and the stakes of the conflict are trying to keep her the same girl she was in To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before. The film is straining towards a natural conclusion where Lara Jean and Peter discover they need to go their separate ways even though they love each other, and the needs of fulfilling the love-conquers-all message.
The result is a painfully scattershot movie that never has the energy of the original. Turner and Centineo are still charming as hell, and we root for them because we’re invested in these characters, but the magic of the To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before was how it sent you back to that time in your life where who you liked and who liked you was the most important thing in the world. Always and Forever inhabits a world where people don’t even know anything about the school to which they are applying (Lara Jean is stunned that NYU is in Manhattan), and if the strength of your series is connecting to your teen audience, that feels like sloppy storytelling to make college applications—which are stressful in their own right—only serve how it affects a romance as if Lara Jean has no concept of life outside her relationship. I had a girlfriend my senior year of high school, and I still managed to be concerned about where I was going to college even though I knew we weren’t applying to the same schools.
Obviously, we don’t need 100% realism from a fluffy YA rom-com, but the emotional stakes should always feel authentic, and here they feel strained and contrived. I can see a movie where Lara Jean and Peter are wrestling with what it means for college to disrupt their romance, but rather than tackle that head-on, Always and Forever is continually making bizarre detours like taking an extra 15 minutes of screen time for Lara Jean to undo a misunderstanding where Peter thinks she got into Stanford. It adds nothing to the plot other than “Lara Jean is having trouble coming clean with Peter,” but it’s like the movie is looking for other tensions than the central one it has to confront.
I’ll maintain that To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before is one of the stronger romantic comedies of the 21st century, and it further cemented Netflix as a home where the dying genre found new life and a perfect audience seeking lighthearted stories of love. But as Always and Forever shows, those premises can be quickly exhausted even if you like the characters and think they have a valid conflict. By the time Always and Forever is trying to coast on nostalgia for the first movie, which, as a reminder, came out only three years ago, you can tell that while we may be rooting for Lara Jean and Peter, it’s long past time to break up with this series.
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