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.