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Netflix film offers progressive take on traditional rom-com themes

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A hallmark of millennial and generation Z pop culture is the old-but-gold concept of the rom-com. Whether you’re a high school student or a 20-something living on your own, watching teenage garbage with friends is a beloved pastime for many. It allows you to escape the grueling reality of college, and embrace a world of extreme fantasy and starry-eyed circumstances. Netflix’s latest addition to the genre, “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before,” is a culmination of everything people admire and desire in a romantic comedy. It adopts many of the conventions of the traditional rom-com — the introverted female bibliophile, the sassy best friend and the classic love triangle being a few — yet provides audiences with a progressive take on its characters and themes.

The film revolves around Lara Jean's adventures in love and loss after her secret love letters are sent out to boys she’s developed crushes on during her adolescence. What ensues are constantly-evolving lies, consequences and an ultimately greater sense of consciousness for the protagonist when it comes to romantic relationships. It’s based on the first book of a Young Adult trilogy by Korean-American author Jenny Han, and resonates with audiences as it gives a novel and central representation of Asian-American women in film. 

“This movie is perfect for a girls’ night in, not only because it’s cheesy but also because the representation of an Asian female protagonist, in particular, is really nice to watch on screen,” said Shaantala Shenoy, an Ernest Mario School of Pharmacy first-year. 

Han herself played a large role in how the movie shaped out to be, and prevented the cast from being white-washed by executives in pre-production. The film's subtle yet significant cultural allusions to kombucha and popular Korean probiotic drinks like Yakult validate the Asian-American identity for many young women, along with this summer’s "Crazy Rich Asians," which is based off the Singaporean author Kevin Kwan’s novel of the same name. Hollywood often gets it wrong when it comes to representing Asian girls in reference to YA, with the dull Cho Chang of the "Harry Potter" films often being the first person to come to mind for the modern-day popular film fanatic.

In the case of "To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before," actress Lana Condor plays protagonist Lara Jean Song Covey. Condor is able to balance out the innocence and incognizance of a teenage girl refusing to conform to the stereotypes of what is defined as “cool,” with the independence of a person growing into herself and learning what love is in contexts that extend beyond romance, especially self-love. The family values often emphasized in collectivist-Asian cultures are presented as warm and worth sharing, rather than repressive. Embracing love and commitment rather than fearing them is a key takeaway from the film. Interestingly, Lara Jean’s father and her sisters, Kitty and Margot, are major catalysts for this revelation. Fans of the film aren’t underestimating the empowering effects of sisterly love the film portrays. The youngest of the Song Covey clan, Kitty, has a particularly large fan-following, due to her quirky and appropriately childlike humor, and the fact that she possesses wisdom beyond her years. Even Margot, although not as lovable as Kitty, presents herself with a refreshing level of maturity in the manner of a true role model.

The death of Lara Jean’s mother leads our protagonist to fear opening up to love, but the messy interactions she has with her loved ones prove to be necessary as they allow her to liberate herself from this fear. To watch this transition from adolescence into womanhood, through a definitely strange but well-executed story, is compelling. Lara Jean’s mother is frequently mentioned throughout the movie showing audiences that although the grief in the Song Covey family will always linger, the celebration of her life and spirit is what should motivate the family to move forward. Many of the moments where Lara Jean learns something profound about herself or about love, she happens to be sitting in the Corner Café remembering her mother, either alone or with Peter or with her father. The final conversation she has with her father in the film is poignant because it pushes Lara Jean out of her shell, and makes her face the people she’s hurt or confused with the lies associated with her letters, including herself, the antagonist Gen and the crushes she wrote those letters to not so long ago.

The aforementioned factors contribute to why the film sets itself apart from the clichés of the 90s rom-coms. The film’s cult following can be largely attributed to actor and now-internet sensation Noah Centineo’s portrayal of the dreamy, lacrosse-playing heartthrob Peter Kavinsky. With wit and charm reminiscent of Heath Ledger in "10 Things I Hate About You," minus the ignorance, annoying trope of a bad boy gone good and the strange appeal of toxic relationships, there are no moments where Centineo’s onscreen presence doesn’t delight. Everything from his dimples, the motif of his concerned “whoa-whoa-whoa,” to the fact that he’s a modern-day man who isn’t afraid of commitment and doesn’t feel the need to support his athleticism with arrogance, gives today’s viewer the chance to embrace a new kind of male trope. This trope includes the ruggedly good-looking brunette of the 90s but adds humility, intelligence and substance beyond romance. He contrasts Israel Broussard’s Josh Sanderson, Margot’s sweet, smart ex-boyfriend and Lara Jean’s best friend, without being presented as the lesser man in the Lara Jean-Peter-Josh love triangle. Centineo’s Kavinsky won the hearts of many, without taking too much attention away from the evolution of Condor’s Lara Jean.

The combination of the cutesy archetypes and simplicity of the romantic comedies and YA fiction we grew up with, along with the novel and wholesome approach to diversity in media in a way that’s not forced makes this movie a 2018 classic. The way that Chloe Andreas, a School of Arts and Sciences first-year, sums up her experience with the film feels almost universal: “It’s just so relatable ... we’ve all had some kind of experience with having a crush on someone, the awkwardness of high school, that kind of stuff. We know what growing up felt like, and Netflix appealed to that part of us.”

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