The best kind of gossip is the kind you have no personal stake in. It’s fun when the details are juicy, but it’s even better if you don’t stand to lose anything by engaging with it. A similar principle applies to romantic comedies, which walk a fine line between fantasy (larger-than-life romantic tribulations that don’t actually affect you) and relatability (knowing exactly what the protagonist is going through). Netflix’s To All the Boys: P.S. I Still Love You, directed by Michael Fimognari and adapted from Jenny Han’s series of novels (each movie takes on one book), attempts to hit the highs of the best romantic gossip. But its results are mixed in its concession to the third element of romantic comedies: a happy ending.
In its predecessor, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before (currently streaming free on Netflix as a promo tool), Lara Jean Covey (Lana Condor) had her life thrown into chaos when her little sister Kitty (Anna Cathcart) mailed out five love letters Lara Jean had written but never sent. The resulting romantic mix-ups culminated in Lara Jean finding love with one of the letters’ recipients, Peter Kavinsky (Noah Centineo). As P.S. I Still Love You begins, they’re finding their way through the early stages of a relationship, with all the attendant troubles.
The scenes where Lara Jean and Peter adjust to being a couple feel the most real, and that’s where the film excels. Lara Jean’s insecurities are only human — she’s concerned about her level of sexual experience compared to Peter’s, and about his lingering attachment to his ex-girlfriend Gen (Emilija Baranac). Peter’s wishy-washiness is similarly understandable when it comes to asking Lara Jean to do more “girlfriend” things, like dressing up in school colors to support him during sports games.
What’s less human — and frankly, more angelic — is John Ambrose McClaren (Jordan Fisher), another recipient of Lara Jean’s letters. He re-enters her life first with a thoughtful response letter (which confesses he also had had a crush on her at the time), and then as a fellow volunteer at a local retirement home. Lara Jean instantly falls back in flirt with him, and as her problems with Peter become more stressful, John Ambrose becomes more appealing. Unlike Peter, whose status as a jock and a popular kid means he runs in different circles from Lara Jean, John Ambrose seems like her perfect match: he’s studious, he plays the piano, and he participates in model U.N.
John Ambrose becomes the movie’s way into fantasy — which is where the movie is weakest. Lara Jean’s flights of fancy are cute — at one point, she lip-syncs parts of Ashe’s “Moral of the Story” directly to the camera — but feel like filler material in comparison to her very real relationship problems. It’s easy to see why Lara Jean would struggle with John Ambrose coming back into her life, and the idea of being attracted to multiple people while in a relationship is often under-addressed in favor of the notion of true love. By contrast, a snow-filled romantic interlude doesn’t come across quite as dreamily as it’s meant to — the magic of the moment is superseded by the fake-looking snow, and the logistics of laying down in the snow while wearing an evening gown.
The ideal rom-com manages to strike a balance between fantasy and relatability, but P.S. I Still Love You doesn’t devote enough time to either. Maybe it’s a given that anyone watching it will have seen its predecessor, but Lara Jean and Peter’s relationship is treated as if they were in an episodic TV show rather than a movie. The audience is expected to already know what makes them so great together, and to feel some investment in their relationship, even though the film doesn’t spend any time establishing them as a couple. P.S. I Still Love You doesn’t give them much reason for being together, as trouble comes along almost immediately. They’re never really seen enjoying each other’s company as they did in the first film. Why wouldn’t she choose John Ambrose, when Peter only seems to make her uncomfortable?
Condor’s performance goes a long way toward excusing these faults. Her comic timing is impeccable, and the clanging lines some of her co-stars deliver make her stand out even more. Her sincerity in playing Lara Jean’s insecurity makes it believable that someone with such a perfectly manicured life (everything, down to the clothes on her bedroom floor, seems to have sprung out of a Pinterest board) might be considered anything other than a cool girl. Her chemistry with both Centineo and Fisher is convincing, too, though the film’s allusions to sex feel out of place. They might be relatable, but they’re awkward in a movie that’s otherwise resolutely PG-13, if not outright PG. The movie’s aesthetics are so twee that a brief nighttime makeout session in Peter’s car feels ported in from a different teen movie.
But charm isn’t enough to float the entire movie. What P.S. I Still Love You needs is balance, and it ultimately spends too much time trying to make the John Ambrose part of the story impeccably dreamy, when the realities of what Lara Jean is going through are ripe to dissect. The film is the kind of gossip that doesn’t have enough details about the people in it to get invested — it’s fun, but ultimately not all that memorable.
To All the Boys: P.S. I Still Love You is streaming on Netflix now.