And everything in between is an apt description for this well-meaning movie that is less than an hour and half long, but still feels mired down the middle.
When she first meets Aidan (Jordan Fisher) at a Halloween party, Clare (Talia Ryder) is very sure of one thing: She does not want a boyfriend. Her parents were high school sweethearts whose marriage imploded. Since then, she’s been moving from place to place with her mother (Jennifer Robertson), who finds new love in every town. Clare has goals of college and law school and self-sufficiency and stability. There’s no room in there for high school romance, which, she explains, is just the prologue to the rest of their lives. But, Aidan is cute and witty and kind. He wants to be a musician, but since his parents want him to be a doctor he expects to go to school for that. So he’s a tortured-but-not-rebellious-artist. They end up spending the whole night talking and eating candy and getting caught in the rain and, look, teenage loins can only withstand so much!! So they make a pact that they will date until they leave for college, at which point they will go on one last epic date and then go their separate ways. Easy peasy lemon squeezy. As if!
We know where this is all leading: Aidan and Clare don’t realize they’ll be in so deep, and will have mixed feelings about breaking up. Secrets will be spilled. Aidan will learn about emotional honesty and vulnerability. Clare will learn that you can’t pre-determine or control love. And they’ll both gain the valuable knowledge that there’s almost never a painless way out of any relationship worth having. The movie has moments where it does capture that teenage tension between longing for independence and craving safety and security, though it mostly anesthetizes any real pain. It also glosses over Aidan’s real issues with honesty and his plan to kind of hoodwink Clare into staying with him, which is hugely problematic. But I, at least, like its emphasis on the worthiness of exploring the world alone.
The movie montages us through ten months of Aidan and Clare dating and falling in love until we land on their last day together, titled “The Goodbye.” Most of the movie is taken up by their Epic Date, which is a series of grand gestures orchestrated by Aidan meant to recreate their firsts—date, fight, prom, I love you—which we then see in flashback. This technique is part of what bogs down the middle of the movie. It’s a lot to experience the past, the present, and (in some sense) the future all at once. The goal is for us to experience instant nostalgia for experiences we’re only just having, which is a tall order. Plus, we’re watching a romance via the slow, painful breakup, which isn’t exactly ideal no matter how many soft glowing lights or indie songs you pad it with. A lot of the movie just kind of slides by like an extended advertisement for some lifestyle product you’ll never remember. It ends up feeling somewhat confusing and protracted and empty.
The focus on these grand gestures means that we have no sense of the mundane, which is, after all, what really makes a relationship. What made us all swoon in To All The Boys was when Peter Kravinsky put his hand in Lara Jean’s back pocket or the moment they were wrestling on the couch or, be still all our hearts, when he went across town to get the yogurt drink. There’s no sense of that here, and I think the movie and the characters suffer for it. They are both very pretty people and they play off each other well, but I didn’t particularly believe that they had just spent the past ten months falling deeply in love. Clare and her best friend Stella (Ayo Edebiri) muster more believable chemistry and warmth in their tongue-in-cheek Grand Gesture Goodbye Ceremony than Clare and Aidan do throughout most of the movie. It’s almost the end when the movie really lets their cracks show, when they let these two characters become actual people, and that’s when the movie really begins to have enough grit to stick with you. I wish they would have let it happen sooner. And maybe the whole movie would have worked better if it had been written as something slightly darker and more abrasive.
I do have to tell you that there was a line that nearly made my head explode. And I hope that it keeps whoever wrote it up at night with woeful regret. After Clare and Aidan have fought about whether to break up, Clare says to her mother, “I just don’t want to lose myself.” And her mother responds, “If he’s the right guy, he won’t let you.” I’m so sorry. WHAT?!? Did I mishear? I mean, no. That’s not how this works. Especially when we’re talking about teenagers who are very much trying to figure out their own shit and who the fuck they are in the world. That’s just an immense amount of responsibility to put on anyone, and we’re not even accounting for societal expectations about gender roles. It’s categorically awful advice. He won’t let you? HE. WON’T. LET. YOU. Excuse me, but that is also a fascinating sentence construction they chose there since it denotes control instead of her by him. Phew. I’m going to step away now.
But, while I am complaining, let me say that diversity is best when it’s meaningful. Yes, it’s something that this cast includes Black and Asian actors, but I am woefully tired of the lead actresses in movies like this one being waif thin white women with long mostly straight hair and a largely affectless manner. Everybody on the planet falls in and out of love, so why are we seeing near carbon copies of the same woman doing it over and over again? And I know a lot of people saw this as John Ambrose—the snubbed love interest who Jordan Fisher plays in To All the Boys—finally getting his due, but I was irked by how often everyone needs to tell Clare about how amazing and wonderful Aidan is, as if they’re hinting that she better strike while the nice guy is interested. No, thank you. We do not need this kind narrative even lightly implied. And why do NONE of the adults seem to support the decision to go their separate ways? Even if they think these kids are great together, SOMEONE must see the benefit of some space in their togetherness to grow, to make huge mistakes, and to learn. But given Clare’s mother’s advice, maybe not. The movie seems to overall, which, as I said before, I like, but I still wanted more.
Well, speaking of everything in between, this review seems to have meandered a bit. Should you watch this movie? Look, all I’m going to say is that life is long and you’re going to have lots of options. This won’t be the only movie to come along.