Lana Condor, Noah Centineo and the team behind Netflix's breakout rom-com have franchise aspirations. Can they capture the magic again?
When To All the Boys I've Loved Before debuted on Netflix in 2018, it seemed like just the latest title in its Summer of Love promotion. There was Set It Up, Sierra Burgess Is a Loser and The Kissing Booth. But To All the Boys quickly proved to be a phenomenon.
The main character, a Korean American high schooler named Lara Jean (played by Lana Condor), won over audiences who saw themselves mirrored in her life and mixed heritage. There was a surge of thirst for the internet's newest crush, Noah Centineo (playing Lara Jean's love interest, Peter Kavinsky). Sales for Yakult, a Japanese yogurt drink, increased after being featured in several scenes, and by Halloween, Twitter was overloaded with images of costumes inspired by Lara Jean.
To All the Boys became one of Netflix's "most viewed original films ever," with many fans watching it repeatedly, according to Variety. If the streaming service, which selectively releases audience numbers, is to be believed, more than 80 million subscribers caught the rom-com. The company also cited Instagram data to show the film's impact: Condor's follower count jumped from about 100,000 to 5.5 million, while Centineo's increased from 800,000 to 13.4 million.
To All the Boys I've Loved Before clearly seemed to tap into an unmet demand. Now, the team behind the first film is hoping its sequel, P.S. I Still Love You, will too. It premiered on February 12.
Based on Jenny Han's bestselling 2014 novel of the same name, the first movie followed Lara Jean as she is forced to confront her emotions when private love letters she penned are sent to her past crushes — and to her current one, her sister's ex-boyfriend Josh (Israel Broussard). While navigating the mayhem that ensues and trying to make Josh jealous, she ends up in a fake relationship with Peter, a popular but kindhearted jock. It's not long before the fake relationship leads both to develop real feelings.
Casting the Vietnamese-born newcomer Condor as the endearing Lara Jean opposite Centineo (of Charlie's Angels and The Perfect Date) resulted in palpable chemistry that certainly helped fuel the success of To All the Boys.
Condor said in an interview that she thought the excitement around the original stemmed from its wholesome, uplifting love story: "You kind of feel better after you watch it. You feel joy, and I think there's something to be said about, right now, today, you kind of have to actively seek joy." Centineo similarly saw the film as comfort food. "Chicken soup for the soul, baby. That's what we want."
But the film's popularity was also driven by more tangible factors. For one, there had been a noticeable lack of successful film rom-coms for years. Movies like 10 Things I Hate About You, She's All That and Drive Me Crazy were staples of the late 1990s and the early 2000s, but that was the last time the teen rom-com was really prevalent on the big screen; To All the Boys was a rom-com for a new generation.
And it injected new life into the genre with its diverse cast of characters. Condor's casting was seen as a win for Asian American audiences, who had seen several Asian characters morph into white ones in recent screen adaptations. (See the controversies surrounding Doctor Strange and Ghost in the Shell.)
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LeiLani Nishime, a professor of communications at the University of Washington, said Asian Americans usually show up only "in certain kinds of genres" like sci-fi or family dramas "but things like detective films or rom-coms, you didn't see a whole lot of Asian Americans."
The movie was a (partial) answer to the underrepresentation of such characters. Han said, "We've seen a certain type of rom-com many times, and I have never seen an Asian American girl as the lead of a rom-com. So I think being able to experience the first blush of first love through her eyes, it felt really new and sparkly."
To All the Boys was also released the same week as Crazy Rich Asians, and the combination of both films propelled a surge of interest in Asian American romances on screen. These two rom-coms of course couldn't solve the lack of representation, but they did prove that Asian American audiences wanted to see more of themselves onscreen.
In P.S. I Still Love You, once again adapted from Han's romance novel series, the budding relationship between Lara Jean and Peter continues. But the on screen antics are further complicated when another one of Lara Jean's past crushes (and letter recipients), John Ambrose — played by Jordan Fisher — reenters her life. With John, Lara Jean's first love, in the picture, she has another dream guy to consider. John, unlike the suave, popular Peter, is both bookish and charming. What transpires is a love triangle that will probably spur an online battle of internet crushes.
"The truth of the matter is, when you have someone like Jordan Fisher up against anyone else, his competition should be afraid, very afraid," Centineo said, "because he is charismatic, he is extremely intelligent, extremely articulate and more than anything, he's just a kind human being and soul. And he knows how to cook."
While Centineo said he knew that some viewers wouldn't be thrilled with a rival love interest, he added that it made for a more compelling narrative. "When dealing with a franchise, especially one that was as successful as the first film, you really want to follow up with something that isn't just exactly what the audience would want," he said. But the romantic chaos will give fans endearing moments from Lara Jean that include stress baking and a "Cinderella" scene where everything comes to a head while she's clad in a ballgown.
The sequel is filled with the same chemistry between Condor and Centineo that once sparked rumours they were dating. Despite that speculation, the two actors say they had just formed a tight bond. (Condor has been with her boyfriend, Anthony De La Torre, for more than four years).
"Acting with Noah is very, very easy, so, it doesn't take a lot for me to love his heart and his mind," Condor said, adding, "If people believe that we're together or they want us to be, I think that means we did our job as actors."
Centineo also noted that when they met they "were both in very similar places in our lives and we bonded on the pain that we were both experiencing."
P.S. I Still Love You is about more than just romance, though. Just as one of the screenwriters, Sofia Alvarez, didn't want the first film to be "about a girl who was in love with her sister's boyfriend," the second film follows Lara Jean as she explores what it "means to be vulnerable once you're actually in that relationship and dealing with the other person as opposed to just thinking about being in a relationship with them." Ultimately, Condor said, that will lead to more challenges for viewers. "The audience is going to be more frustrated at Lara Jean than they will be at the boys," she said.
P.S. I Still Love You is part of a larger Netflix plan. Both Condor and Centineo said they wrapped filming on the final entry in the trilogy in August. While details about the third installment were limited, one of the producers, Matt Kaplan, said that the film centers on "Lara Jean and Peter dealing with what life is like when you have to start to make more adult choices, like going off to college and figuring out how to navigate bigger, more adult conversations about relationships."
But the team behind the franchise thinks it will reverberate beyond the initial releases. Alongside films like Crazy Rich Asians and Always Be My Maybe, Condor said she hoped the To All the Boys movies would inspire more rom-coms to take Asian American representation into consideration. "I think Asian American actors have really kind of harnessed their power and they are trying to step into the space with confidence," she said. "I am so proud to even be a little part of a movement that I hope is not just a movement, but is a very long forever process."
And the producer Kaplan envisions the To All the Boys" films becoming part of the rom-com canon, Kaplan said: "I hope that the franchise will resonate in a way that lasts for generations, and that kids can look back at these movies and Lara Jean and Peter Kavinsky can kind of be known in history as one of these really charming romantic comedy couples."
Written by: Ilana Kaplan
Photographs by: Elizabeth Weinberg
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