Dir: Michael Fimognari. Starring: Lana Condor, Noah Centineo, Janel Parrish, Anna Cathcart, Trezzo Mahoro, Holland Taylor. 81 mins.
Netflix has achieved Terminator levels of efficiency when it comes to churning out breezy romcoms with self-consciously quirky titles like Sierra Burgess is a Loser, The Kissing Booth, and Tall Girl (a film about a girl who is tall). But they’re not always as slapdash as you’d expect. Yes, there are the daft and morally questionable few (we’re meant to cheer as Sierra Burgess catfishes her crush), but films such as 2018’s To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before have helped the streaming service join in on the new wave of smart, nuanced teen narratives.
That film had the usual far-fetched story: the nerdy, withdrawn Lara Jean (Lana Condor) writes letters to her crushes, then stuffs them in a hatbox alongside all of her suppressed desires. One day, her sister accidentally mails them all out. It kicks off a chain reaction of romantic chaos. But screenwriter Sofia Alvarez, adapting a 2015 book by Jenny Han, carefully teased out every hope and heartbreak of a girl who wants love as much as she fears it. Its sequel To All the Boys: PS I Still Love You enthusiastically, but less confidently revisits those themes. Laura Jean may have ended up with Peter (Noah Centineo) – the jock with a sheepdog aura – but this film still finds a way to throw a spanner in the works. John Ambrose (Jordan Fisher), a yet-unseen recipient of one of Laura Jean’s letters, turns up unexpectedly and causes her heart to flutter. She turns to Holland Taylor’s Stormy, a resident at the care home she volunteers at, for advice. Stormy’s a former Pan Am stewardess (“the showgirls of the skies!”) who keeps taxidermied beasts in her room and regales Laura Jean with stories about her past lovers. It brings an unexpected, but welcome dose of dry-martini cynicism to Laura Jean’s G-rated world.
Although the first film nodded to the legacy of Sixteen Candles, its successor seems even more fixated on the cinematic past. We see Laura Jean dance awkwardly to “And Then He Kissed Me” in homage to Adventures in Babysitting, while peppy covers of “Age of Consent” and “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” rattle in the background of scenes. There’s a sense the film is constantly arguing for its own legitimacy, while also stumbling over itself to poke fun at the genre. On Valentine’s Day, the camera drifts between a couple making out, a girl sobbing her eyes out, and an acapella group in rehearsal – presented as the three definitive states of teenagehood.
The change behind-the-scenes is noteworthy: the film has fallen victim to the trend where successful female-directed films suddenly get a man at their helm for their sequel (see: Twilight, Mamma Mia, or Fifty Shades of Grey). The project was passed from Susan Johnson over to her cinematographer, Michael Fimognari. Does that explain the change in tone? Possibly. At least the dedication to cataloguing Laura Jean’s neuroses remains. As she explains, she’s “never been a girlfriend before”. The idea is so daunting that she’s ready to pack it in the moment she reaches her first hurdle. A little of Laura Jean’s own timidity may have rubbed off on To All the Boys: PS I Still Love You, but the sequel still stands tall among its romcom peers.