Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last couple of weeks, you will be aware of the rom-com phenom To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before. The Netflix original film became an instant hit for a number of reasons: because it’s a rare mainstream film which centers the perspective of a Korean-American girl; because the charming love interest exhibits a softer kind of masculinity than audiences are accustomed to; because it’s just a good movie. Teens are eating it up, just as they did the young adult novels on which it is based.
But why are people in their twenties and thirties responding so warmly to it? Technically, this isn’t for us, and yet so many of the tweets gushing over romantic hero Peter Kavinsky are coming from adults.
anyway! time to go dream about peter kavinsky's chin scar. i'm 35.
— Bim Adewunmi (@bimadew) August 19, 2018
These tweets aren’t lustful or creepy, though. While actor Noah Centineo is certainly attractive, the Peter Kavinsky discourse seems primarily concerned with appreciating the “softness” of the character and the purity of his courtship of protagonist Lara Jean, focusing on moments like the playful hot tub splash, or the back pocket spin, or his drive across town to buy Yakult (all of which sound odd out of context but grab you by the heart in the moment).
And therein lies the attraction of teenage love stories for people whose teen years are well and truly over: They provide an innocent, sanitized narrative free from the messy adult realities of sex and dating. In contrast, high school romances feel so chaste, so steeped in the intricacies of social hierarchy and so focused on the ascent and inner lives of young women, that they often track closer to a Jane Austen adaptation than more “mature” rom-com fare by the likes of Nancy Meyers or Nora Ephron. There is great comfort to be found in retreating to a gentle fictional world in which none of the action gets hotter than PG-13, where the touch of a hand or the mere possibility of a kiss is enough to send the young introvert heroine into meltdown. We’re able to enjoy these stories because we’re watching from a distance; we might remember how it feels to be a lovelorn teenager, but we’re not smack bang in the middle of it.
A truly good high school movie is successful in manufacturing nostalgia for a time in our lives that never quite existed. Adolescence is a mess of hormones and identity crises and social awkwardness, all of which mean our early forays into romance are often doomed. Films like To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before present us with an idealized version of our own high school experience and the perfect first love. This is also true of the other big YA romance hit of 2018; a lot of my queer friends’ praise for Love, Simon involved the scenes in which the protagonist was able to have awkward but emotionally honest conversations with his parents about his sexuality. I count myself among the viewers who were surprised by just how personally cathartic they found these moments — it’s the cinematic equivalent of being able to go back in time and say exactly what you wanted to in the moment.
There is undoubtedly an escapist element to this nostalgia; teen rom-coms take us back to a time when anything felt possible and our love lives were — for better or worse — the most important things in our worlds, as opposed to the collapse of democracy or threat of nuclear war. When everything in our current lives seems unavoidably tied to politics and debates which can turn toxic at a moment’s notice, it is soothing to immerse ourselves in storytelling where these concerns simply don’t exist. While real world teens are rallying for gun control, LGBTQ rights and bodily autonomy, nobody in To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before is worrying about Trump or the Second Amendment. The stakes are emotional, not existential. The fashion, music, slang and technology might place the characters firmly in 2018, but it’s a Hollywood version of 2018, a fictional bubble which the pressures and stresses of real life can’t permeate. The movie seeks to serve a different purpose.
Another thing these kinds of films have going for them is that on a strictly practical level, it’s slightly easier to suspend one’s disbelief with regards to the wacky premises on which many rom-coms are based when the protagonists are younger. 10 Things I Hate About You and Clueless both work as adaptations of classics because the matchmaking machinations are transplanted to high school settings, where rich kids have plenty of free time to interfere in each other’s love lives, where social standing is of the utmost importance and where the young characters are learning things about themselves at the same time as the audience. It would be a stretch to ask audiences to buy Lara Jean Covey and Peter Kavinsky pretending to date if they were in their twenties, but the trope fits comfortably into its surroundings.
I’m loathe to call any kind of entertainment a “guilty pleasure,” a term which reeks of snobbery. I’m not a huge fan of describing a film as “comfort food” either because that implies they are to be consumed with no thought whatsoever; I think films like To All The Boys have a lot to offer young audiences, whether that be encouraging emotional articulacy or simply giving Asian-American kids a greater degree of representation.
And as for us adults, well, there’s something for us there, too. Watching a high school movie is an exercise in regression and gratitude. We revert back to that teenage mindset for 90 minutes, during which we remember what it’s like to be shy, or bullied, or to like someone and not know how to tell them. And then, when the credits roll, we thank god that we’re not in high school anymore.
Philip Ellis is a freelance writer and journalist from the U.K. You can follow him on Twitter @Philip_Ellis
Photo via Netflix.