In many ways, To All the Boys: Always and Forever feels like a love letter addressed to its own series, which has been an unlikely success story for just about everyone involved. The first film, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, was one of Netflix’s earliest hits when it comes to their original movies, kicking off not just two sequels but a renewed cultural interest in committed rom-coms with mainstream budgets. The film was a career boon for co-stars Lana Condor and Noah Centineo, and the already well-liked YA novels these movies were based on from author Jenny Han have undoubtedly benefited from all the hoopla.
So where to go from here? The journey of the central couple in these films has perhaps mirrored the journey of the films themselves. The first one was a surprising delight, dancing in some well-worn tropes about fake relationships but having so much fun doing it, the audience couldn’t care less if they’d seen it done before. The second film, To All the Boys: P.S. I Still Love You, introduced some new challenges and even a new, prospective love interest who could challenge what (or who) you liked from the original. And now the third film, To All the Boys: Always and Forever, addresses the Toy Story 3 problem of a high school relationship that was always moving toward an inevitable parting.
Lara Jean (Condor) and Peter (Centineo) are now in their senior year of high school, which means they’ll soon be off to college, and you can probably see where this is going. Despite their relationship still going pretty strong, to the point where the film’s first 20 minutes feel a bit too much like a stretched epilogue without many stakes, Lara Jean starts to wonder if their relationship might crumble if she decides to pick a school more suited for creative writing ambitions, while Peter has already secured a lacrosse scholarship at Stanford.
Plenty of movies have explored this territory to exhausting degree, but to be fair, each generation deserves their own modern update. And Always and Forever fortunately introduces some insightful flavor into a problem most movies would perhaps solve a bit too cleanly. It’s clear from the beginning that Lara Jean has their entire future mapped out, but when faced with the prospect of her plans changing, she doesn’t react with the sort of anxiety she might’ve in the first film. No, she’s actually excited about the possibility of trying new things, a sign that after all this time later, our main character has truly grown from these experiences we’ve watched onscreen. The only problem is that this comes at Peter’s expense.
So far in these films, and to a somewhat jarring degree in P.S. I Still Love You, Peter has been an almost insufferably perfect boyfriend when it comes to supporting Lara Jean and balancing creative gestures with sincere sensitivity. It’s an aspirational role, to be sure, and one that Centineo can practically do while sleepwalking, giving a whole generation of teens a blissfully smiling example of healthy, affirming masculinity. In Always and Forever, this role model is finally examined and even grounded to some extent, showing that Peter’s supportive bravado can have a downside when not checked appropriately. We see that Peter exhibits all of this good affection because of his abandonment trauma, which means the idea of Lara Jean choosing to be farther away from him is an understandable, sympathetic, and tragic challenge that can actually, realistically threaten their relationship.
It’s a good thing, too, because the rest of Always and Forever is about as bubble gum as usual, with all of our returning characters essentially going through the motions of their lives without much drama. Lara Jean’s dad (John Corbett) is getting ready to propose to stepmom-in-training Trina (Sarayu Blue), Kitty (Anna Cathcart) likes a boy for the first time, Chris (Madeleine Arthur) and Trevor (Ross Butler) have their own will-they-won’t-they subplot simmering in the background, but none of these side stories ever come close to stealing the spotlight. Like it tends to be in high school, Lara Jean and Peter definitely feel like everything in their lives is the center of everything in the world, and the movie does a fine enough job making us care that much about them, all the same.
Fans of the first two films already know they’re going to watch this, at least out of curiosity, and it’s wonderful to report that this Ben and Jerry’s flavored trilogy ends on about as good a note as we can reasonably expect. Michael Fimognari does return at the helm after taking over directing duties in the last film from Susan Johnson. And it certainly shows that Netflix wanted to finish this without deviating too far away from what people have liked so far. It’s still a soda-pop movie, in that it’s sweet and best consumed in moderation, and it only has the barest of substance. But if you’re looking for an excuse to recapture the same feeling you might’ve had the end of the last two films, you likely won’t be disappointed.
To All the Boys: Always and Forever is currently available to stream exclusively on Netflix.
Photo credit: Katie Yu / Netflix