One of Lara Jean Song Covey’s enduring hobbies, the protagonist of the To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before series, is her penchant for baking. From Jenny Han’s bestselling YA trilogy to the Netflix adaptations, we’ve seen her stir and bake and ice a series of Pinterest-worthy creations. Yet, they might all pale compared to the confectionary offering that is To All the Boys: Always and Forever, the third and final installment of the film franchise.
It’s notable that after the resounding success of the first film, the franchise saw a change in directors from Susan Johnson to Michael Fimognari, who helmed both sequels. TATB2 enjoyed less responding praise than its predecessor, in no small part because of the love triangle’s introduction featuring Jordan Fisher’s undeniably charming John Ambrose Maclaren, the time dedicated to the central relationship between Lara Jean and Peter, was significantly diluted. Given the winning chemistry between breakout stars Lana Condor and Noah Centineo formed a large part of the original film’s appeal, TATB3 is immediately more appealing for re-centring that relationship. Both stars are instantly believable as a young and in love couple, their interactions as swooningly romantic as they are genuinely believable. A scene in which Lara Jean finally works up the nerve to impart bad news to Peter about her college decision is an example of the pair at their finest — Condor is wonderfully earnest and vulnerable in her delivery. At the same time, Centineo’s gentle interjection of “are you okay?” into her tirade, expressing only concern for her where she had been worried about his reaction, is bound to resuscitate the overwhelming Peter Kavinsky Mania that swept the Internet after his hand-in-back-pocket-twirl of Film 1.
That’s not to say there isn’t a love triangle at the heart of this film — only instead of another photogenic young thing on the other side, it’s NYU, New York City, and the life Lara Jean imagines herself having there. The college plotline in Jenny Han’s Always And Forever, Lara Jean was notable for how intimately and realistically depicted its conflicts were — Han’s books were always good at describing the adolescent experience with aching realism. There’s something undoubtedly refreshing about a college plotline centring on an Asian American teenager that doesn’t subscribe to the standard “I want to do Arts, but I’m expected to do STEM”/“My life hinges on my Ivy league acceptance”/“Watch as I learn there’s more to life than my GPA” narratives they’re typically confined to. Lara Jean gets a whimsical, slightly cheesy “finding myself” Bildungsroman style narrative — in and of itself, the tale of high school sweethearts facing imminent separation by way of colleges on opposite coasts is hardly a new one. Still, between the grounding of this arc by the lens of an Asian American experience and by Condor and Centineo’s performances, it’s a fun one to watch.
With the Covinsky of it all being allowed to shine through where it couldn’t in the previous film, what does become undeniably noticeable are the directorial and aesthetic choices, especially compared to the charming Indie Movie way of Early 2000s teen flick style of the first. There’s a distinctly overproduced feeling to TATB3, where every single shot seems engineered to be as GIF-able as possible. There are sequences in Seoul and New York City; both filmed like aspirational travel TikToks. The cinematography and colour palette both feel meticulously chosen to be as screen-capturable and repostable as possible. From the backgrounds of the Covey sister’s framed school photos to the soft lighting of the various venues of Lara Jean and Peter’s dates, every hue feels like it’s been passed through VSCO. There’s not a single frame of this film that can’t be added to a quick viral tweet about “obsessed with the TATB3 aesthetic” or put into one of the Netflix Instagram accounts desperately “relatable” slideshows with some caption like “I love cinnamon tography” a month from now.
The manicured and perfectly colour corrected veneer of the film is actually distracting after a while, seeming almost to undermine the main message about Lara Jean’s self-discovery and awareness of a big wide world beyond the soft-focus billows of her home life. NYU and the city still seem presented through her rose-tinted, hopelessly romantic lens, and whilst there’s nothing wrong with this per se, it’s a little hard to buy that she’s seen something in the city that she wouldn’t have discovered by scrolling through some New York City-themed mood boards in the annals of Tumblr. Maybe intercutting the whimsical shots of the world’s cleanest, emptiest subway car and the Empire State Building lit up to match the film’s colour palette with a few snapshots of Lara Jean trying street food from a grubby yet delicious hole-in-the-wall, or even with her exploring a museum or something might have made the voyage of discovery a little more convincing.
Still, Lana Condor has always provided the story with a strong emotional core, and she and Centineo are able to ground a film that at times meanders dangerously close to cloying firmly in the realms of accessibly, enjoyably sweet.