“Maybe love is actually about the moments when you think no one is watching.”
If there’s one thing that Hollywood has taught us over the years, it’s that pulling off a great trilogy is hard. So many great film series seem to be let down by their third instalment (and a few others by their second); and for many, the number of trilogies which can be considered to be truly great through all three films can probably be listed on one hand. When pressed, many people wold relent that a certain instalment of their favourite series just doesn’t match the others; whether it be the Godfather III struggling to live up to the hype of its masterful predecessor, or the unnecessarily convoluted story of The Dark Knight Returns casting a shadow over the great, interesting performances of the piece. So it may come as a surprise to most that Netflix have pulled off the unthinkable with the To All The Boys adaptations, and have given us a cool, effective and fun trilogy of a consistent high quality; finishing off with the newly released To All The Boys: Always And Forever.
Adapted from Jenny Han’s third novel in the To All The Boys book series (titled Always And Forever, Laura-Jean in print); To All The Boys: Always And Forever (A&F for the duration of this piece) follows Laura-Jean Song Covey (Lana Condor, X-Men: Days Of Future Past) as she navigates her final year of high school, starting with a family trip to Seoul, Korea during Spring Break. Her journey includes navigating her on-going relationship with Peter Kavinsky (Noah Centineo, The Perfect Date), and the difficulties of balancing where her life is at the moment, with where she wants it to go during her college years and beyond.
First and foremost; if you haven’t watched the first two instalments in this series, go back and watch them before you even think about watching this film. Han’s world-building, adapted for the screen in this instalment by Katie Lovejoy, is at the centre of the success of this movies, and provides a fully-realised playground for Condor and Centineo to do their work in, under the attentive eye of director Michael Fimognari, who has worked on every film in the series; directing P.S. I Love You and working as cinematographer for To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before. The consistency provided by Fimognari’s presence throughout the series is obvious, especially if watching A&F soon after its two predecessors; Michael has favoured angles to shoot his central actors from, which allow not only for a clear focus on them when it is needed, but also capture the background details of the environments for the wider; less character-focused scenes, and allows for excellent use of location when the action is pulled away from Portland to Seoul and NYC. The series has a self-awareness to its influences, with Laura-Jean’s love of John Hughes-style teenage coming-of-age movies featuring not only as a character-building plot device, but also as a narrative frame; and clear homages to the likes of John Hughes can be seen in Fimognari’s staging of some of the more bombastic ensemble sequences, such as a group bowling trip, or the all-important senior prom.
Laura-Jean once again serves not only as our central character, but also as our narrator; and Lana Condor returns to the role with the same energy and passion as the previous instalments. LJ is slowly becoming more savvy to the wider world around her as the series goes on, and has grown from the shy, inexperienced and love-struck teen of To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before into a confident young woman; relishing in her relationship and her bright future. Condor comes at this last hurrah as Laura-Jean with all guns blazing, and the passion and energy remains consistent with her previous performances, retaining the quiet innocence while bringing a new level of emotional maturity to the role and navigating her way through the emotional roller-coaster of senior year of high school with a masterful ease. One solo shot in particular, following a very emotional scene with Centineo, was filled with incredible emotion despite not saying a single word; now that Condor is done with this series, it will be very interesting to see which projects she embarks upon next; as she certainly has a bright future ahead of her.
Speaking of Noah Centineo, he delivers his trademark relaxed charm with the level of skill you would expect. It’s a testament to Jenny Han’s writing that Kavinsky is such a well-rounded character, and Centineo relishes the opportunity to break Kavinsky out of the stereotypical popular high-school sports star role in this series; bringing us a Kavinsky who is charming, kind, and undoubtedly in love with Condor’s Laura-Jean. I was taken aback by the fact he responded to the instances of adversity in their relationship with a level head and a kind heart; something which we don’t see nearly enough in modern cinema. The other advantage this gives is that when Peter does respond to something irrationally in an angry moment, the impact of that is so much stronger for an audience who are behind him as a character; and even when this does happen, the response could still be argued to be justified to an extent (though I can’t reveal the scenario here without dropping some fairly key spoilers, so you’ll have to figure out what I’m talking about when you get to it). Like with Condor, Centineo really shows us what he has to offer in this last outing; and he’s another one to watch as this series wraps up (though hopefully somebody will cast him in a role where he isn’t playing a high-schooler, ideally).
The supporting cast has a little less to do in this one, but are still important in fleshing out the world around Laura-Jean and Peter, especially for those larger plot moments. Notable once again is Anna Cathcart (Odd Squad) as Laura-Jean’s younger sister Kitty, who once again levels heaps of comic relief every time she appears on screen, and features in an adorable romantic subplot of her own which has absolutely zero stakes and is a nice palate cleanser amongst the higher-drama of the Laura-Jean/Peter central narrative. Sarayu Rao (Happiest Season) also returns as Trina Rothschild, the love-interest of the Covey clan patriarch, played by John Corbett (My Big Fat Greek Wedding), and her performance at one point caused me to shout “STEP-MOTHER GOALS” to nobody in particular. She brings a warmth and understanding to a difficult character with an ease and charm that should be noted by all the casting directors in Hollywood; navigating the awkwardness of filling a motherly role in a family who lost their matriarch to illness, and delicately providing guidance to the Song Covey girls without moving to replace their mother. The character is a perfect framework for a complex emotional scenario, and Rao brings so much joy, life and love to the character that her performance has really stuck with me.
The high-school supporting cast are also back to provide sounding-off points and emotional context for Laura-Jean, and Madeleine Arthur (Big Eyes) returns as LJ’s best friend Chrissy to provide madcap nonsense and emotional support in equal measure; Trezzo Mahoro also returns as Lucas for the same role; and Emilija Baranac returns as Genevieve, though their relationship has quietly moved past love rivals to a more positive place, and helps define a grounding point for the demonstration of Laura-Jean’s overall emotional maturation in a positive way. While all three have a little less to do in this outing than in previous instalments, they still use their time on screen well, and their presence is certainly beneficial to the film overall.
To All The Boys: Always And Forever is a wonderful, warm and enjoyable send-off to an excellent trio of modern, well-thought out romantic comedies. Elevating both literary adaptation and the art of the trilogy for the new decade, these films work both as a gentle homage to the classic coming-of-age films of the late 80’s and early 90’s, while also setting the bar for the films that must follow it in the genre. Lana Condor and Noah Centineo are stars in the making, with a series of emotional, intelligent and effective film performances under their belts in these films which could make actors with twice their experience proud. The series may not contain the level of high-drama required to do well on the awards circuit, but that doesn’t mean these outings are not worthy of your time; and I would recommend checking out all three if you haven’t already. After all; everybody needs a little love right now; and you never know where love will lead you…