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Netflix’s To All the Boys: P.S. I Still Love You shows its predecessor didn’t need a sequel

I watched To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before on a loop for a month. I don’t think I’ll do that with P.S. I Still Love You.

Lara Jean (Lana Condor) and John Ambrose (Jordan Fisher) share a moment in the snow. Look out for your dress, Lara Jean!
Netflix/Bettina Strauss

There was something about To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, Netflix’s surprise hit 2018 teen love story directed by Susan Johnson, that made people want to wrap themselves up in it.

Everywhere I went in the months after it came out, people were talking about it: at parties with friends, at networking coffees with book publicists, with the Vox politics writers who were popping into the culture team’s Slack channel to declare To All the Boys the only thing that mattered in the world anymore. Usually, the people I talked to made sure to tell me how many times they’d watched it, which makes sense, because To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before has become one of Netflix’s most watched and rewatched movies.

“I never watch teen movies,” people would tell me, “but I watched this one twice.” Or, “I never rewatch any movies, but I rewatched this one twice.”

I myself watched To All the Boys three times in the first weekend it came out, and then just started watching it on a loop every morning when I went to the gym, dipping in and out of it in half-hour segments. To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before accomplished the impossible task of feeling both cozy and sparkling all at the same time, and watching it was all I wanted to do.

But when I finished the new sequel, To All the Boys: P.S. I Still Love You, out on Netflix on February 12 and directed by Michael Fimognari (the director of photography for To All the Boys, directing his first feature here), I had no urge whatsoever to watch it again. While I’d just spent a perfectly enjoyable two hours with this movie, I could easily go quite a long time without ever needing to sit through it a second time. I’m done with it.

P.S. I Still Love You is fun, but it doesn’t have the tender, intimate detail work of its predecessor

Peter Kavinsky (Noah Centineo) and Lara Jean (Lana Condor) send off their paper balloon. Lara Jean does have nice handwriting!
Netflix / Bettina Strauss

P.S. I Still Love You picks up shortly after To All the Boys ends. 16-year-olds Lara Jean Covey (Lana Condor) and Peter Kavinsky (Noah Centineo) have officially become a real couple, after spending most of the previous movie fake dating. As the movie opens, they are on their first real date, eating out at a fancy restaurant and building paper lanterns together to float into the sky.

But shy Lara Jean can’t help waiting for the other shoe to drop. She thinks of herself as an inexperienced wallflower, and she’s well aware that Peter, the most popular boy in school, has plenty of options outside of her. “I don’t want us to break each other’s hearts,” she tells him.

Potential heartbreak arrives nonetheless, in the form of John Ambrose McClaren (Jordan Fisher), Lara Jean’s middle school crush. John Ambrose and Lara Jean end up volunteering at the same nursing home together, and when John Ambrose starts flirting with Lara Jean, she finds herself flirting back.

The love triangle here is meant to be more compelling than the first movie’s largely pro-forma triangle between Lara Jean, Peter, and poor Josh Sanderson: While Josh never really posed a genuine threat to Peter in To All the Boys, in P.S. I Still Love You, it’s supposed to be easy to go Team John.

And the outlines of a solid triangle are there. John Ambrose, who likes to announce bingo for old people and thinks throwing a black tie event at a nursing home sounds glamorous, is the same kind of old-fashioned romantic that Lara Jean is. Peter, meanwhile, is a jock who likes playing flip cup at parties. It’s clear which one Lara Jean has more in common with.

But while Fisher is a born leading man, and he has lovely, understated chemistry with Condor, this relationship isn’t filled out with the kind of detail work that made the love story of the first To All the Boys shine.

The first movie worked as well it did because of tiny moments that made its central relationship feel lived-in and genuine. Those weren’t just the Peter Kavinsky improvs that made everyone swoon (The Spin, The Popcorn, The Splash). They were also tiny storytelling flourishes, like Peter showing Lara Jean he likes her by buying her yogurt smoothies, and Lara Jean protecting herself from catching feelings by refusing to post about their relationship on Instagram.

Those kinds of moments don’t exist in P.S. I Still Love You. The closest you get is Peter telling Lara Jean she has really nice handwriting before we coast into a wordless montage of paper lanterns floating. (Admittedly that is a very sweet moment.) And while Peter and Lara Jean can largely skate by on the strength of nostalgia for the first movie and Centineo and Condor’s chemistry, John Ambrose is starting from scratch. With the careful craftsmanship of To All the Boys nowhere in evidence, he’s working with a handicap.

So instead of feeling specific and tender and lived-in, John Ambrose’s scenes have a faint whiff of the generic to them. When he nurses a broken heart by sitting down at a piano to play, the scene doesn’t feel rooted in his character. It feels ported over from Netflix’s so-bad-it’s-not-quite-good Christmas Prince cinematic universe, which never met a sexy piano playing scene it didn’t love.

Also Christmas Prince-reminiscent is Lara Jean and John Ambrose’s impromptu frolic through some extremely fake-looking snow, a scene that’s working hard to be adorable without much justification. Right when the movie seemed to want us to be sighing at the romance of it all, more than one person at my screening was instead hissing urgently about potential snow-induced damage to Lara Jean’s vintage evening gown. The gown logistics were the most compelling part of the scene.

And where the love triangle isn’t generic, it’s tonally off. The final scene of To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before — in which Lara Jean confesses to Peter that she likes him, “and not in a fake way” — landed because it was so underplayed. The score dropped out, the extras disappeared, and all we were left with was our two leads in a field at magic hour, as if the world had fallen away from them, leaving them completely exposed and vulnerable.

But the equivalent scene in P.S. I Still Love You is, if anything, overplayed. The music swells in the background; the actors deliver their lines directly to the camera, as if they’re planning to smash through the fourth wall like the Kool-Aid Man; and the whole thing is so dramatic that in my memory, it seems to take place entirely in slow motion. (It doesn’t actually, I’m pretty sure.)

None of this is to say that P.S. I Still Love You is offensively bad. Like its predecessor, it takes place in a world that sings with vibrant colors, sometimes literally: As the movie opens, Lara Jean is pirouetting onscreen in bright yellow to belt out some showtunes about her joy at being in love. And this movie takes care to be both thoughtful and realistic about sex and the possibility of Lara Jean having it. “Don’t do anything until you’re a thousand percent sure you know what revs your own engine,” her best friend Chris advises her.

As she was in To All the Boys, Condor is the beating heart of this movie, and her performance as Lara Jean is deceptively complex. Lara Jean has to be simultaneously a nerdy introvert and badass cool chick, but Condor makes both sides feel equally present and equally real. Meanwhile, reprising his role as Peter, Centineo proves yet again that no one in the business is better at gazing longingly at girls than he is.

There are even places where P.S. I Still Love You improves on its predecessor. One of the few weaknesses in To All the Boys was that it left Peter’s ex-girlfriend Genevieve a flat villain without nuance, which frankly just made it kind of weird that Peter was so hung up on her. But P.S. I Still Love You takes a beat to see what’s going on in Genevieve’s world a little — and to explore her long-dormant friendship with Lara Jean as well.

So when the credits rolled on P.S. I Still Love You, I didn’t feel that I’d wasted my time watching it. I’d had a lovely night hanging out with these likable characters played by likable actors in a likable, colorful world. But I still don’t really feel as though I need to watch P.S. I Still Love You ever again.

It might be time to take another spin through To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, though.

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