You may look at the poster art for Netflix’s original film To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before and conclude it’s a cheeky high school romcom that wouldn’t be out of place on the Disney Channel. You wouldn’t exactly be wrong. But you would be wrong to write it off entirely based on that alone. Allow me to explain why.
I’m not the first to say it, but I’m still going to: Netflix has a branding problem. Not their streaming service in and of itself, that’s fine; the “Netflix and chill” memes have taken care of that. But the Netflix Original brand – once associated with award-winning titles like Orange is the New Black, Arrested Development, and House of Cards – now carries a connotation of being cheap and low-brow entertainment. This is especially the case with their films, where aside from the acclaimed Mudbound, they exist in high quantity and low quality.
That’s the context against which To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before enters the picture. The Netflix Original film is based off of a young adult novel and follows a shy teenage girl’s love life, hardly the stuff of high-brow culture. But if this film tells us anything about the Netflix medium, it’s that they should make more low-brow entertainment.
Allow me to explain myself. The premise of the film is that Lara-Jean writes love letters to crushes she never expresses her feelings to. These letters are, unbeknownst to her, distributed to these five boys, although some of them were written years ago. Complications ensue, especially because one of them is the very recent ex-boyfriend of her older sister Margot.
This sounds more soapy than it is – think less Gossip Girl and more Mean Girls. It’s a cliche high school romcom in which every beat is broadcasted and there are hardly any surprises; if you’ve seen one of these films, you’ve seen most of them. But just because it’s predictably by-the-numbers doesn’t mean it’s worthless. There are moments of earnestness and authenticity that occasionally shine through the veneer of shallow teenage popularity politics. The film touches on the pain of missing parents – Lara-Jean’s mother is deceased and Peter’s father deserted his family for a new one. Lara-Jean also touches on the reason for her hesitancy toward dating: “The more people you let into your life, the more people that can just walk out.”
While the film endorses modern values in some annoying ways – such as Lara-Jean’s dad giving her condoms before a school trip and googling “shirtless Justin Trudeau” – I find it encouraging that the film doesn’t treat Lara-Jean’s innocence as a blemish. She approaches the “firsts” of the relationships as special, and her virginity is treated as valuable, and never as something that needs to be ended. Not unlike The Edge of Seventeen (which is admittedly far superior), it seems teenage and coming-of-age films are finally recognizing that there’s more to growing up than sex.
So when I say maybe Netflix should stick to low-brow entertainment, I say it because this one was done well. While it will likely make few top ten lists, it’s not a bad way to spend the evening, which seems a fitting thing to be able to say about a Netflix film.