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To All the Boys: Always and Forever suffers from a case of diminishing returns

The first To All the Boys film was an instant classic. What happened?

Lana Condor as Lara Jean Covey in To All the Boys: Always and Forever.
Katie Yu/Netflix
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

As the closing credits scroll on To All the Boys: Always and Forever, the third and final volume in Netflix’s sweet teen love trilogy, clips from all three films play in the background. And as they played, I found myself desperately trying to work out what it was that made the first entry in the trilogy — 2018’s To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, directed by Susan Johnson — so much more compelling than the other two. Even in soundless 10-second clips, it was so much better than its successors that it hurt a little.

Maybe it’s the weight of the hype. When the first To All the Boys movie came out in 2018, it was an unexpected success, a dark horse that became one of the most-watched and re-watched original movies on Netflix and single-handedly made teen icons out of both Lana Condor and Noah Centineo. It could afford to be low-stakes and surprising because few critics were expecting much from it. But the next two movies had high expectations to live up to.

Was it the lighting? All three To All the Boys movies are rendered in joyous shades of turquoise and sunshine yellow and pink, like a platter of vividly toned macarons. But there was a slight bleaching to certain scenes in that first movie, an occasional willingness to let the light be ugly or distorting when it felt right, so that when it went sun-drenched and romantic, the romance really landed.

That willingness has completely vanished from the other two movies — and with it has gone any sense that these films might ever be willing to get really sad, or that their characters might ever experience anything other than temporary distress. Which means the happiness that they do inevitably encounter becomes a little bit cheap.

Or maybe it was the costumes?

In the first film, our heroine Lara Jean (Lana Condor) was dressed by Rafaella Rabinovich in clothes that mixed references freely from the ’60s to the ’90s. Then, Lara Jean displayed a tendency to mix sweet and girly frills with a little punk drama: she was always wearing combat boots with her pink miniskirts, or pairing her bows with a sharp-edged neon plaid. But in 2020’s To All the Boys: P.S. I Still Love You, and in the latest outing, Always and Forever (both directed by Michael Fimognari), Lara Jean is dressed by Lorraine Carson in a softly romantic mod wardrobe without a trace of punk to it. She wears her sunshine-yellow frocks with flat teal sandals, and all her plaids are sweet.

Lara Jean looks great in all three films. But the girly girl/cool chick combo of the first movie didn’t just look great. It also doubled as character development. It suggested that nice girl Lara Jean had a few hidden sharp edges herself, and that there was some secret badass potential inside of her that, if given the right encouragement, might finally emerge.

With the wardrobe of the second and third films, that layer of character work is gone. There’s no longer any suggestion of secret badassery in the way Lara Jean is presented to us. There’s just flat and straightforward sweetness.

In that same way, the light in the second and third films is straightforwardly sweet, without melancholy. And the story is straightforwardly sweet, without real potential for tragedy. It all feels sweet right up to the edge of becoming cloying, and maybe even stepping over the threshold.

Whatever it is, some fundamental alchemy has leached out of this trilogy. Some under-the-radar willingness to get weird and sad — a willingness that made the straightforward trope-driven structure of that first movie’s happy ending feel earned and lovely and lived-in — has disappeared.

To All the Boys: Always and Forever is a perfectly fine, competent, and forgettable teen romance. It’s a better movie than 2020’s P.S. I Still Love You, largely because its central conflict is stronger than that film’s DOA love triangle. But it doesn’t come anywhere close to the heights of the original To All the Boys.

This movie is just okay. It’s nothing more than that.

Always and Forever deals with that great nemesis of high school love: college

Always and Forever finds high school sweethearts Lara Jean Covey and Peter Kavinsky (Centineo) entering spring of their senior year. After fake dating in the first movie, and surviving a romantic rival for Lara Jean’s affections in the second, they’re now preparing to face their biggest trial of all: college.

Peter plans to go to Stanford (lol, sure), where he’s landed a lacrosse scholarship (lololol, sure). Lara Jean is certain she’ll be admitted as well — but when she’s rejected, she has a backup plan. She is willing to settle for UC Berkeley, where she did get in, and which is just an hour’s drive away from Stanford. And surely, Peter tells her, she can transfer to Stanford as long as she keeps her grades up. So really, they’ll only be separated for one year, not four. (It’s worth noting that in the books by Jenny Han on which the To All the Boys films are based, this plotline involves the University of Virginia. Han’s version, it must be said, makes a lot more sense than Peter and Lara Jean betting their relationship on both of them getting into a school with an acceptance rate of 4 percent.)

But Lara Jean has also been accepted to NYU. And on a class trip to New York, she finds herself falling in love with the city. She starts to think that maybe she might actually want to go to NYU, thousands of miles away from Stanford — and maybe she might want to go for all four years, not just for one year until she can transfer.

Peter, who is working through some abandonment issues left over from growing up with an absent father, does not take this idea well. “We both know what 3,000 miles of distance will do to us,” he tells her.

On a purely structural level, the question of how college will affect our lovers’ relationship is a much richer and more interesting problem for them to face than the second movie’s question of whether Lara Jean was going to choose some other, non-Peter guy (she didn’t). It’s a meaningful and relatable problem that real-life high school couples face every year. It has a pleasing symmetry with the first To All the Boys film, which began when Lara Jean’s older sister dumped her high school boyfriend as she prepared to go off to college. And it comes with layers of conflict for Centineo and Condor to play through, with their smiles growing a little bit tenser in each successive scene as one obstacle after another seems to land between Lara Jean and Peter.

Condor and Centineo continue to have appealing chemistry. That’s not enough.

Noah Centineo and Lana Condor as Peter and Lara Jean in To All the Boys: Always and Forever.
Katie Yu/Netflix

Centineo and Condor remain the best part of To All the Boys: Always and Forever, as they were the best part of P.S. I Still Love You. They have a wholesomely sexy chemistry that manages to keep even their cutest moments from ever quite descending into cutesiness, and they can sell the giddy joy of first love as easily as they sell their terror at their looming separation. Centineo remains the reigning champion of the longing gaze, and while Condor’s gift for comic timing goes underused in Always and Forever, every time she has the chance to break it out, she reminds us just how funny and endearing she can be.

But like P.S. I Still Love You, Always and Forever fails to find strong, specific details in which to ground this love story. Gone are the yogurt smoothies, the hands in back pockets, the stolen scrunchies. Instead, Always and Forever is heavy on the wordless montages, where you don’t need interesting details because you can just rely on a romantic setting and your actors’ smiles to do the work for you. And the film leans on lazy and underwritten references to Pride and Prejudice and Romeo and Juliet, neither of which particularly applies to the story we’re watching play out between Peter and Lara Jean.

It all feels a little bit generic, a little bit lazy, a little bit too sweet. None of it is executed with the flair this trilogy demonstrated it was capable of showing in its first outing.

So as this sweet-natured high school romance comes to a close, it’s not getting the happy ending it deserves. Instead, the To All the Boys series fades out on what feels all too much like a case of diminishing returns.