Is it weird that I almost feel like I don’t have anything to say about the final installment of the To All the Boys trilogy? And I mean that in the best way possible. It’s the right ending for the story, satisfying and bittersweet. What more needs to be said? (Spoiler: It turns out I had a lot more to say!)
And look, people are inevitably going to compare this movie to the first one, but is that really fair? It’s not. Because nothing is going to recapture the bubbly, glowing charm of watching Lara Jean Covey (Lana Condor) and Peter Kravinsky (Noah Centineo) move from flirtatious banter and a fake relationship to full-fledged love. Nor is it going to recapture our surprise and joy at watching a rom-com that managed to be an ode to every beloved well-worn trope while also rewriting the book in terms of things like compassion, respect, and vulnerability, and did all that while centering the whole shebang on Lara Jean’s self-discovery and identity as a Korean-American. That stuff is a magical confection that I periodically need re-injected into my veins. And yes, I was a rom-com sequel skeptic when the second movie came out, but even if the love triangle was a little soft at the vertices, it still convinced me that more time spent in the To All the Boys universe was a good thing. And friends, I am officially all in on this final installment because it’s exactly what it should be: A gentle, funny, empathetic, respectful (though still romanticized) look at what happens when love grows up and people’s needs change. (Plus, I don’t remember seeing an awkward and obvious product placement for Subway in this one. And thank goodness for that!)
Side note: The events in the movie take place in Spring 2021 and there is the inevitable debate about whether it should mention COVID. Personally, I’m so relieved to escape into a world without masks or social distancing or anything to do with a deadly virus. But look at this list of COVID-related jobs required to make the movie!
TATB: Always and Forever opens with Lara Jean visiting South Korea with her father (John Corbett), his girlfriend Trina (Sarayu Blue), and her sisters, Margot (Janel Parrish) and Kitty (Anna Cathcart) during spring break. One of the things I appreciate is how the movies have always focused on Lara Jean’s Korean-Americaness. (Remember in the first movie when Peter Kravinsky became our collective boyfriend by driving across town to get Lara Jean and Kitty their favorite yogurt drink from the Korean grocer? Suitors—and I mean that genderlessly—of the world take note: There are many things more romantic than red roses.) In this one, she and her family visit places around Seoul, while searching for the lock their mother hopefully placed among thousands of others at the Seoul Tower.
While on a video call with Peter, Lara Jean expresses her frustration about not being able to speak more Korean and how it makes her miss her mother. It’s a small moment, only a few seconds really, but it’s such a relatable point for many second and third generation children of immigrants, and it speaks volumes about the way the movies are approachable and center on Lara Jean’s experiences.
Anyway, Lara Jean spends much of the time in Korea writing Peter letters (because of course Lara Jean is going to write some letters!) and telling him how much she misses him and how she hopes she gets into Stanford (where he has a Lacrosse scholarship) so they never have to be this far apart again. Kitty, who you’ll be relieved to know is still fantastic in her role of cynic and comic relief, points out that maaaaybe Lara Jean is being a little over the top since it’s only a week. She also makes fun of Lara Jean signing her letter, “always and forever” by saying, “like a lingering fart or, nay, a bruise that never heals.” I adore Kitty. Though, in Lara Jean’s defense, we all know the intensity of a yearning, especially a teenage yearning, to be near your special person. Margot suggests that Lara Jean keep her college options open and not put all her eggs in the Stanford basket. Lara Jean definitively says no because why would she even consider UCLA, Berkeley, or NYU (perhaps her school options are slightly less relatable) when she could be at Stanford with Peter? What she doesn’t tell her sisters is that, while she still hasn’t gotten into Stanford, she has spent time fantasizing about attending college, getting married, buying a house, having a baby, and writing a book all with Peter no more than ten feet away from her. Yes, as a person with many more years under her belt than Lara Jean, the fantasy feels a bit stifling, but it’s an entirely plausible dream for a teenager in the throes of first love when everything feels all or nothing.
So, with all this, you just KNOW there’s some long-distance separation barreling toward them like an out of control freight train! (How many more hackneyed turns of phrase will I be able to squeeze into this review?) Lara Jean does not get into Stanford, which results in some miscommunication and sends her spinning into anxiety about what that will mean for her and Peter.
She’s temporarily mollified by an acceptance to Berkeley, which will keep them close enough to visit on weekends, until, on their senior class trip, they visit New York and Lara Jean falls head over heels for the City. (As an aside, the thought of chaperoning at least a busload of seventeen and eighteen year olds on a trip to New York gives me heart palpitations and anxiety hives. The scenes of them visiting Time Square felt like I was watching a horror movie.) Now she’ll have to decide between the safety of staying close to Peter and home or the excitement and challenge of trying something entirely new on her own.
It really is a lovely thing to watch a movie where the central tension is about Lara Jean growing up and learning about what she wants for herself, even if that isn’t what is easiest for her romantic relationship. These movies have always ultimately been about Lara Jean’s emotional journey. (So help me Roget, I looked high and low for another word to use here, and my brain failed me. Apparently this is just the review where I cram in all the clichés.) Lara Jean is helped along in this movie by the parallel story of her father and Trina bringing together their lives without losing their individuality. And also with Peter learning to accept his father’s huge mistakes and long absence in his life. While she frets that she and Peter lack a song, an anniversary, or a meet-cute, which are the crucial elements of any good rom-com couple, she also starts to recognize that maybe love is less about the big gestures and more “about the moments when you think no one is watching,” which seems like a healthy part of growing up and accepting that love is not all shiny, explosive moments. (Those moments when you think no one is watching are, of course, some of the most endearing moments for us, the viewers to watch in these movies, which is, woah, very meta.) I think the movie also gently hints at how all of the characters, including Peter’s ex-girlfriend and possibly reformed mean girl Gen (Emilija Baranac), start to grow and mature beyond the personas they carried like defensive armor throughout high school.
But, also of course, Peter Kravinsky is still Peter Kravinsky—supportive, goofy, vulnerable, and so unabashedly adoring of Lara Jean that you can practically hear the millions of streamers simultaneously sighing.
Yes, he has a moment when the idea of Lara Jean choosing to spend four years 3,000 miles away is too much for even him to be placidly understanding. I may have gasped when he tells her that she doesn’t love him enough, but it’s a totally relatable human response. He is of course later redeemed when he tells her that he never wants to be the person holding her back. I absolutely swooned in the same way I swoon every damn time America’s Second Gentleman, Doug Emhoff, talks about Kamala Harris’s ambition and his joy at getting to be by her side. But I also think about the message Peter Kravinsky’s words send to young people, especially young women, about what they can expect from a romantic partner, and that makes me swoon even harder. (And get more than a little irate that this concept is still novel in the year of our Netflix 2021.) Can I also tell you that in one part Peter asks Kitty to teach him to braid Lara Jean’s hair. BRAID. HER. HAIR. What in the feminist equitable dreamscape fantasy is that?!? Think about the way that small gesture values learning a skill that has generally been devalued and eschewed by men just because of its importance to women. My swoons may be swooning at this point.
While Peter Kravinsky generally gets all the attention, I would be utterly remiss if I didn’t point out my continued love for Lara Jean’s father. Does it help that he’s played by John Corbett? Absolutely. But it’s also the way his character is so respectful of his three daughters’ individuality and independence. I adored the moment he told Lara Jean that she cannot save her relationship by not growing. Dr. Covey with the sexy truth bombs! (Though nothing will beat his safe sex pep talk in the first movie.)
And speaking of sex, this movie also respectfully (and very modestly) handles the issue of Peter and Lara Jean walking over that Sexual Bridge of No Returns, a moment that only feels right to happen at this point in their maturing relationship, and before we say goodbye to them forever. Uh, well, that sounded a little less weird in my head, but you get the point. I hope.
Of course, all of this is still wrapped up in the cuteness of things like the silly gifts Lara Jean brings Peter from Korea, matching bowling shirts, promposals, and the always welcome humorous and touching scenes with her family. Some might say there’s less of it than in the previous movies—though, never fear, there are plenty of nostalgic callbacks to important moments in their relationship—but everything has to grow and change with Lara Jean. Otherwise, people would be out there complaining that the movies were all the same and too repetitive. (I get it, people, I like to complain as well.) But as these characters mature, it’s only realistic that they would find life gets more complicated and messy, which is, after all, what makes it so fricking interesting and beautiful.
Now start giving Lana Condor more roles in movies and television!!