Praise for Netflix Film “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before”

A sweet teen love story told through a multicultural lens.

Posted Jun 30, 2019

The tale is as old as time.  Boy and girl meet.  One falls in love at first sight, the other is oblivious.  Meanwhile one pines away for their unrequited love, while the other dates the football player or cheerleader.  At least, that is the Hollywood version of such stories.  Rom-coms, truth be told, portray a highly predictable and yet uncharacteristically satisfying plot line.  While the basic story typically remains the same, various little twists and turns keep viewers coming back for more because after all, who doesn’t appreciate a good love story?

As an adolescent therapist, I often watch the latest Netflix originals that are geared toward teens as the primary audience.  Aside from providing a good reference point for common themes and imagery they are exposed to, they can sometimes spark strong conversations about relationships, worth, and communication skills.  Having saved To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before for a rainy day, I was pleasantly surprised when I finally did get around to seeing it.  It portrayed a storyline that resonated far more with my own upbringing in a collectivistic culture than those I’d ever seen growing up. 

The main premise of the film is about a young biracial Asian American teen girl who writes deeply expressive love letters to her crushes and hides them away to never be seen or read by anyone but herself.  In her spare time, she reads romance stories, all while never allowing a romantic adventure of her own.  That is, until her younger sister sends out all of the letters to the boys in an attempt to spice up her older sister’s love life.  The film is based on the trilogy of books by author Jenny Han.

What is perhaps most endearing about the story is seeing love through the lens of a teen seemingly brought up in a more conservative and traditional bicultural background.  When she "pretend dates” a guy to make another one jealous, she makes a contract.  No kissing, but hand holding and hand in the back of the pocket is OK. She must go to parties with him and to the annual ski trip.  Meanwhile, he would write her notes and watch Sixteen Candles

In an era where hookups and casual sex are normalized and praised, there is something beautiful about teens maintaining their fleeting innocence however long they can.  Too often films and television series minimize the meaning and connection involved in intimacy.  There are never emotional consequences to actions.  Healthy relationships are rarely the norm and, if anything, they get in the way of the individualistic ideals of freedom and autonomy.

The idea of romance is one that is too often lost.  In a time where social media and technology threaten to complicate and isolate human relationships, it is even more imperative that the simplicity and innocence of first love be preserved.  Here, Jenny Han’s storyline soars and exceeds expectations.  There is nothing ribald or raunchy—the easy points so many films aim to score.  Instead there is understated sweetness, a little bit of sass, and a tremendous amount of wisdom and heart. 

As a psychologist and multicultural practitioner, it is inspiring to see old stories told in new and refreshing ways.  Diversity, after all, is not simply about demographics or items that can be categorized in a checkbox.  It is about world views, customs, and tradition.  Different ways of living and loving.  And all of that engenders a voice that deserves to be heard.