'To All The Boys: Always And Forever' Can't Recapture The Magic Of The Original

Two HuffPost reporters assess whether the final installment of the Netflix rom-com trilogy, starring Lana Condor and Noah Centineo, hits the right notes.
"To All the Boys: Always and Forever."
"To All the Boys: Always and Forever."
Photo: Netflix; Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/HuffPost

It’s been three years since shy bookworm Lara Jean Covey and lax bro Peter Kavinsky blushed and flirted their way into our hearts in the Netflix smash “To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before,” a high school romantic comedy based on the YA book by Jenny Han. That first movie — as sweet and dreamily hued as a macaron from Lara Jean’s own kitchen — made stars Lana Condor and Noah Centineo into heartthrobs and helped fuel a streaming rom-com mini-boom.

Running with the momentum of the original adaptation, Netflix quickly greenlit adaptations of the other two books in Han’s trilogy. In 2020, they released the sequel, “To All The Boys: P.S. I Still Love You.” Now, just in time for Valentine’s Day 2021, the final installment is hitting the streaming service.

In “To All The Boys: Always And Forever,” Lara Jean and Peter are nearing the end of their senior year and making plans for a future. Peter has been recruited to play lacrosse at Stanford, and Lara Jean (the stronger student of the two) is planning to enroll with him — as soon as she gets her acceptance. Though she’s already dreaming of a four-year college idyll together, followed by marriage and a picket fence, she’s also excited to study English literature and have new experiences. When she ends up at an NYU party during their class trip to New York City, Lara Jean starts to wonder if being near her boyfriend is the best way to pick a college. Oh, and of course, there’s prom. And her father’s wedding. And Peter’s estranged father’s reemergence in his son’s life. And when will these two lovebirds take a step forward in their physical relationship?

There are a lot of threads to tie off in this bittersweet finale. But there’s only one thing that matters: Does “Always And Forever” cast the same spell as “To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before”? Or would rewatching the first installment be a better way to spend a Valentine’s Day under lockdown? HuffPost reporters Marina Fang and Claire Fallon got out their coziest blankets and a tray of freshly baked cookies to discuss.

The Bottom Line

“To All The Boys: Always And Forever” fails to recapture the magic of the original, but it’s perfectly fine weekend viewing.

Peter Kavinsky (Noah Centineo) and Lara Jean Covey (Lana Condor) in the final installment of Netflix's "To All the Boys" rom-com trilogy.
Peter Kavinsky (Noah Centineo) and Lara Jean Covey (Lana Condor) in the final installment of Netflix's "To All the Boys" rom-com trilogy.
Katie Yu / Netflix

Claire Fallon: It’s finally here! The last chapter of “To All The Boys,” the sweet capper on the Netflix depiction of the high school romance I wish I had. Three years ago, I fell so hard for the first film that I watched it over 20 times. Last year, on maternity leave, I managed one viewing of the cute-but-less-thrilling follow-up. And now, here we are, yet again seeking to escape from this cruel world into Lara Jean and Peter’s softer one. The big question, Marina: Did it work for you?

Marina Fang: I gotta say, it was pretty underwhelming. I, too, adored the first movie — it was charming as hell and thawed my cold, cynical heart. Its release came a time when the rom-com genre was having a renaissance, and it was a part of a wave of movies and TV that achieved the platonic ideal of becoming more inclusive and culturally specific without being strictly about that. But both follow-ups have lacked the inventiveness of the first movie, which was such a brilliant fusion of leaning into rom-com tropes while also playing around with them in bold, new ways. This one felt especially formulaic and saccharine. And even as a form of escapism, it didn’t really deliver for me. I felt constantly at a remove and only minimally invested in it. It left me wondering if there’s a limit to pandemic escapism, and whether it was the movie itself, hitting that “pandemic wall” where I can’t tell up from down anymore, or a combination of both. Claire, where did you land on this one?

Third Time Is Not A Charm

Claire: Sadly, I agree. As much as I love a couple hours with Lana Condor and Noah Centineo, it’s hard to capture that lightning in a bottle twice, let alone three times. There were cute moments (I did tear up here and there, maybe just because the idea of high school love is so foreign to my harried new-mom lifestyle), but it doesn’t hang together enough that I could relax into it. I’d love to hear more about what you thought the first movie did that was missing here! Is it the plot? The writing? The music?

Marina: All of the above, I think? To outline the plot, our adorable couple has reached the spring of their senior year and have to figure out whether they’re going to try to stay together in college. I think I’ve seen this plot line far too much. There’s only so much agonizing over college acceptances and planning elaborate promposals that I can take. Even Condor and Centineo’s winsome chemistry wasn’t enough to keep me interested. Yes, Peter continues to be the ideal Good Guy, supporting and respecting Lara Jean’s choices, but I hate to say it: His charm has worn off a bit.

Peter Kavinsky (Noah Centineo) channeling John Cusack from "Say Anything ... "
Peter Kavinsky (Noah Centineo) channeling John Cusack from "Say Anything ... "
Katie Yu / Netflix

The Aesthetics & Music Cues

Most surprisingly, the sunny aesthetics were even too much for me! In both the original and the first sequel, I paused the movie to admire, say, the wallpaper or a piece of furniture. (Holland Taylor’s character lives in an absurdly glamorous assisted living facility.) But here, I just couldn’t take it. There’s a scene when Lara Jean and Peter go on a date at a bowling alley, and she lays out these pastel-colored pastries. Pastel-colored pastries. At a bowling alley. Too much.

Claire, am I being too much of a killjoy?

Claire: Ugh, I wish I thought so. The opulent, saturated visuals keep getting dialed up in every installment. I thought the first movie was perfect eye candy; the assisted living facility severely tested me. This one almost felt feverish. The musical cues also went over-the-top for me. I still listen to some favorites from the soundtrack of the first movie — and, as a millennial, I bopped happily to the opening number (Girls’ Generation’s “Gee” was a hot thing when I was in college! 12 years ago! it still bangs!). But for the most part the songs were heavy-handed, like they were being used to glue together a narrative that didn’t quite feel cohesive. When Lara Jean dreams about her heteronormative fantasy future with Peter to the ear-shattering strains of “Wannabe,” I rolled my eyes — and I am the queen of heteronormative fantasy futures! It was all a little unsubtle.

The Limitations Of Rom-com Sequels

Let’s dig more into the plot. It certainly lacked the freshness of the original — and at 32, I may want to relive first love, but I certainly don’t want to relive college acceptance season. (Not the movie’s fault, though it’s true.) Mostly, it just didn’t feel strongly plotted to me. The movie starts with Lara Jean and her sisters exploring their mother’s culture in a spring break trip to South Korea, and weaves together threads about prom, her father’s wedding to cool neighbor Trina, and Lara Jean’s rejection from Stanford, where Peter has been recruited to play lacrosse. Ultimately, the great obstacle of the movie becomes her curiosity about going to school in New York rather than trying to stay close to Peter. It felt a bit disjointed to me, and the urgency of the two characters getting together was gone. I’ve written before that I don’t really believe in rom-com sequels, and I definitely felt that here. What did you think about how the narrative hung together?

Marina: 100% agree. It was too fragmented. You bring up a good point about whether rom-com sequels are even effective, and I’m struggling to come up with a rom-com movie franchise that actually held together from installment to installment. As a writer or creator, there’s only so much you can do: Maybe add a love triangle, insert a second (or third) round of will-they-won’t-they intrigue, have the couple grapple with how their professional ambitions affect the relationship, etc. If the couple is married, maybe add some marital tension. What are some other reasons rom-com sequels generally don’t work, and was it inevitable that this one wouldn’t work?

Claire: I think you’re right about the central flaw — options for a second and third story are limited and unsatisfying. A rom-com is about two people falling in love, and once they’re together, that story has been told. You can separate them or create a huge obstacle for them to overcome, but typically this also lessens the perceived strength of their connection. The emotional payoff when they make it work again is smaller. For some reason, this bothers me more in a movie than in other formats. I read the Jenny Han books on which the movies are based after seeing the first film, and the movies are reasonably faithful to the source material. But where a book can get away with just letting us spend some more time with characters we love, navigating their changing relationship in an episodic fashion, a genre movie calls for a strong cohesive arc. It’s difficult to conjure that for a story about a relationship hitting the skids and then recovering.

I don’t think it was entirely inevitable, though. The book, I thought, made more out of the question of physical intimacy alongside the question of a looming long-distance relationship, which grounded the conflict more in their romantic connection. Instead, their first experience of sex is a very rushed afterthought.

Were there any bright spots for you in “Always and Forever”? Or any other random gripes?

Marina: I did like that we got to see our characters in new locales. The movie begins with the Coveys visiting Seoul during spring break, and later, there’s a senior class trip to New York. As much as romanticizing New York is such a rom-com cliché, it definitely made me miss pre-pandemic times. Also, I’ve always liked the dynamic between the Covey sisters, and we get more of that here.

The Covey sisters (from left to right): Kitty (Anna Cathcart), Lara Jean (Lana Condor) and Margot (Janel Parrish).
The Covey sisters (from left to right): Kitty (Anna Cathcart), Lara Jean (Lana Condor) and Margot (Janel Parrish).
Katie Yu/Netflix

So, Should You Watch It?

Claire: It hurts me to say this: I think this one can safely be skipped. No judgment, of course, if you want to spend a few hours of your weekend watching Peter Kavinsky and Lara Jean Covey making eyes at each other in slightly different settings than in the original film.

Marina: If you’ve been a “To All the Boys” devotee/completist, then by all means, fire up Netflix and watch it while wrapped in a cozy blanket. It’s adequately watchable weekend viewing, but not a must-see.

“To All the Boys: Always and Forever” is now streaming on Netflix.

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