The new Netflix romantic comedy To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, an adaptation of the Jenny Han novel, revels in the in-between. Protagonist Lara Jean Covey (Lana Condor) finds herself perpetually stuck in the middle: She’s the biracial daughter of an American father (John Corbett) and a deceased Korean mother; she’s the second of three sisters. She’s not quite awkward enough to be a social outcast at school, but she’s certainly not as cool as her former best friend, Gen (short for Genevieve), whose heartthrob boyfriend Peter Kavinsky (Noah Centineo) is their high school’s “king of the cafeteria.”
But for much of the film’s 99-minute run, the most nebulous territory Lara Jean occupies is the space between “real” and “fake” girlfriend. The central tension of To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before begins when, unbeknownst to Lara Jean, her little sister, Kitty (Anna Cathcart), mails the love letters Lara Jean has written to her five crushes over the years. “My letters are my most secret possessions,” Lara Jean explains early into the film. “There are five total: Kenny from camp, Peter from seventh grade, Lucas from homecoming, John Ambrose from Model UN, and Josh. I write a letter when I have a crush so intense I don’t know what to do.” That Josh is Lara Jean’s older sister’s boyfriend (and later, ex) renders that specific crush most dangerous.
When Peter, the first boy to address Lara Jean’s affections after having received his letter, approaches her on the track field, Lara Jean notices the envelope in his hands and faints. She recovers from the fainting spell only to notice Josh rapidly walking toward her carrying a letter of his own. Lara Jean adopts a swift, uncharacteristic course of action: She pins Peter onto the track and kisses him. Later, bumping into her at a café, Peter gently reiterates his disinterest in Lara Jean and tells her that he and Gen are only newly broken up. In the delightfully awkward conversation that ensues, Lara Jean admits to Peter that she kissed him to avoid the discomfort of Josh thinking that she likes him. The revelation sets Peter’s scheme into motion, and he proposes a perfect, fraudulent solution:
“What if we let people think that we were actually together? Just for a little while. And not just [Josh]. I mean everybody.”
“Why would you want that?”
“Well for starters, when Gen heard you kissed me, she went nuts, and if she thinks that you and I are a thing, then she’ll wanna get back together.”
“Oh, so you wanna use me as your pawn?”
“Ah, well, see … technically, you used me as your pawn first when you jumped me.”
The following day, the two formalize their ruse with a contract. It’s a blissfully naive document, one that unsurprisingly renders itself obsolete throughout the course of their publicity stunt, but it’s not without precedent. To All the Boys breathes new life into the “fake relationship” trope, itself a hallmark of the romantic comedy. Through the accidental courtship of Lara Jean and Peter, the film makes the case for the enduring appeal of artifice as a precursor to genuine connection. Their courtship, contrived though it may be, offers glimpses of sincere warmth throughout the movie. That Peter has fallen for Lara Jean by the time their school’s annual ski trip rolls around isn’t surprising to anyone but Lara Jean herself. The fake-relationship trope endures in no small part because of the same factor that makes the rom-com such a satisfying genre: The mystery is not in what the endpoint itself will be, but in how the would-be lovers will get there.
Any romantic comedy that sees its protagonists entering into a contract, formal or otherwise, to feign attraction lets viewers in on a secret: These two silly dopes don’t know what’s coming, but the rest of us do. In watching two people foolishly assume they can stick to the rules and regulations of a relationship designed for non-amorous motives, audiences gain a double satisfaction: Not only do viewers get to see the requisite rom-com happy ending, but they also get to feel smug about it. What’s more alluring than the opportunity to smirk a bit while feeling wholesome joy?
Lara Jean Covey and Peter Kavinsky may be the newest entrants into the category, but the queen of the fake-relationship rom-com is undoubtedly Sandra Bullock. The star of both 1995’s While You Were Sleeping and 2009’s The Proposal, Bullock is a master of evolving from headstrong and affection-avoidant to unexpectedly smitten. In both films, Bullock’s performance is satisfying because it replicates a nearly universal avoidance of the vulnerability that relationships require. Admitting any attraction is difficult, but admitting to another human being that your pulse has grown to match the cadence of their words, glances, and touches can feel like a willful flaying. Therein lies the central trick of the relationship ruse: Establishing guidelines for how to stay uninvested in another human being is such a tempting, if obviously futile, endeavor. Proximity is, after all, a powerful aphrodisiac. If it’s possible to fall in love within the span of 36 questions, how much more enrapturing is the cocoon of a counterfeit union?
In classic teen-romance fashion, Lara Jean and Peter’s first serious conversation about the nature of their fake relationship occurs just a quick step away from the athletic facility that served as the site of their second kiss (the first being the result of a spin-the-bottle game in middle school that enraged Gen and emboldened Lara Jean). In full view of the lacrosse field, the two soon-to-be business associates sketch out their plan at Lara Jean’s behest:
“So, first things first, we need to have a contract so we’re on the same page about the rules.”
“You got rules? Come on, you really know how to zap the fun out of a situation.”
The appeal of the rules is, of course, their irrelevance. Not a single one of Lara Jean’s declarations stops Peter from falling for her—or Lara Jean from moving out of her comfort zone (somewhere between the world of literature and the world around her). Again, the protagonists are desperately, deliciously wrong. The fake-relationship rom-com, with its unabashed adherence to the classic formula, thrills in part because most viewers are all too familiar with what it feels like to baldly deny feelings for another person even as they become patently obvious to everyone else.
To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before may be a teen romance, but Lara Jean’s anxieties about love—that letting people into your life can very easily lead to disappointment should they subsequently walk out—are shared by plenty of adults. And watching Peter slowly fall for her (while respecting Lara Jean’s boundaries, a sticking point that some rom-coms have struggled with) is a welcome contrast to the austerity of the “relationship contract.” As Peter, Centineo is at once bashful and transparent; his voice cracks with enthusiasm, his eyes beam with adoration. The small movements speak volumes. Condor, meanwhile, infuses the ingenue Lara Jean with both wistfulness and gravity; her glances alone convey the depth of Lara Jean’s ill-contained crush on Peter.
It’s thus hard to react with anything but genuine glee as the smitten Peter twirls Lara Jean around in the cafeteria, makes a sojourn all the way across town to get her favorite yogurt drink from the Korean grocery store, and writes her daily notes with an increasing sense of urgency. None of these acts officially breaks the rules that Lara Jean established for their false union, but that’s the point. Even in the face of self-imposed barriers, love—teenage or otherwise—finds a way to make itself known. To restrict it to the confines of a business agreement in the hopes of suppressing it is to misunderstand the most essential truth about relationships: Love is always a contract. As Peter tells Lara Jean, “You just have to trust.”