To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, an unfailingly sweet update on a John Hughes movie about a Korean-American high school girl whose old love letters are accidentally delivered, was arguably the most successful of Netflix’s 2018 romcom revival (which included less effective but still popular films such as Set It Up, Someone Great, Always Be My Maybe and The Kissing Booth). The film launched homegrown stars in Lana Condor and Noah Centineo, whose irresistible chemistry made it a beguiling streamer’s loop; it’s one of the few films I rewatched immediately, then rewatched again, then popped in and out of my favorite scenes for weeks.
Happily ever afters do not resolve when there’s so much money and attention at stake, and the saga of Lara Jean Song Covey (Condor) and Peter Kavinsky (Centineo) continues in two sequels filmed back-to-back, both based on the YA hits by Jenny Han (who adapted the screenplay with Katie Lovejoy). The first, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before: PS I Still Love You, premiered almost exactly a year ago. The second, Always and Forever, originally slated for late last year, arrives on 12 February. There’s been some, um, developments in between those premiere dates, which will either heighten your escapist craving or distract from the film’s fantasized timeline (it’s set in spring 2021, yet there’s no masks in sight).
But where the second movie faltered by setting up a too-hastily sketched, unconvincing love triangle, Always and Forever corrects course by re-centering the series’ initial hook: the palpable spark between overthinking Lara Jean and ever-charming Peter, who still looks at Lara Jean like … if you’ve seen the first, you know. It’s an enjoyable if sometimes overwrought return to form, as its central pair are buffeted by a sanitized though still thorny college admissions process.
Always and Forever, directed by Michael Fimognari (who also helmed PS I Still Love You; the first film was directed by Susan Johnson), picks up weeks after the second movie left off: Lara Jean and Peter are back together and inseparable, FaceTiming I love yous from Portland and the Coveys’ spring break in Seoul. (Lara Jean’s Korean heritage – unfortunately, groundbreaking in 2018 – is once again treated sensitively here, an important aspect of her life but not the only one). Lara Jean, ever the fantasist, has a life plan, played out in succinct daydream: get into Stanford with Peter, get married to Peter, have a baby and a house with Peter, write a bestselling book with Peter.
The lurch, of course, is that Lara Jean does not get into Stanford (Peter is going for lacrosse); the rejection sends her into a tailspin of anxiety about the future (the film has a solid grasp on how terrifying that murkiness can be at 17) and disrupts her too-twee vision – “we were supposed to hold hands while riding bikes, and play footsie in the library, and wear tree hats to football games,” she cries to her younger sister Kitty (Anna Cathcart, still reliable comic relief) and best friend Chris (Madeleine Arthur). The crush of denial from an elite school is a bit laughably non-universal but the film treats it as it feels for Lara Jean and Peter’s sliver of American high schoolers: life-ending or affirming.
The rest of the movie spins from (very teenage) bad communication exacerbated by uncertainty. On a class trip to New York City, Lara Jean falls in love, believably, with NYU and an unexpected vision of her future. To All The Boys smartly makes Peter as understanding as possible (Centineo still has it) but the prospect of growing 3,000 miles apart fractures their fragile romance novel idea of coupledom. Condor, ever the series ace, delivers another nuanced performance, but the film lags as it prizes Lara Jean’s anxiety around the marks of their relationship – gifts, matching shirts, lots of LJ <3 PK notes – over the lived-in banter that sizzled in the original.
Still, Always and Forever continues the sequel’s few high notes: the supportive stepfamily formed between Dr Covey (John Corbett) and neighbor Trina (Sarayu Blue); Peter and Lara Jean’s bond over a lost parent; and layers to former romantic rival/one-dimensional bitch Gen (Emilija Baranac). It coasts in part on montaged nostalgia for the first film, partly on the trilogy’s solid grasp of how monumental every teenage emotion feels, which makes the sideplot over whether/when/how Peter and Lara Jean have sex, resolved with Disney-esque modesty and brevity, land better than it should.
Plans fail, but young love prevails, of course – the film wraps things up with a swoon, effectively pulling at the nostalgic heartstrings. The final serving of this three-part confection rarely strays from enjoyable, even if it doesn’t match the seductive sweetness of the first bite.