Like most sequels, the biggest hurdle To All the Boys: P.S. I Still Love You (2020) faces is measuring up to the hype of its predecessor, the extremely successful To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before (2018). The first TATBILB had a remarkable level of cultural impact, especially for an adaption of a book series that wasn’t particularly well known before its release. So much of the first movie became instantly iconic—Peter Kavinsky’s (Noah Centineo) pocket spin in the school cafeteria, scenes soundtracked by Lauv and Anna of the North, Lara Jean’s (Lana Condor) Clueless-reminiscent style. Centineo rose, and fell, as a Twitter White Boy of the Month, and became a staple of Netflix’s mediocre-to-bad teen content. Yakult sales skyrocketed. One particular scene may have even inspired a new type of middle school relationship currency.
On a broader level, the original TATBILB had the distinction of being an integral part of 2018’s “Asian August,” a momentary breakthrough in Asian film representation that also featured the release of Crazy Rich Asians and Searching. A Korean-American lead in a teen rom-com isn’t necessarily revolutionary, but at the very least, it felt like a refreshing step in the direction of normalizing Asian faces on screen.
Unfortunately, it’s near-impossible to imagine anything from the sequel having the same level of cultural impact or relevance, if any at all. I blame, in part, the plot’s sparseness. Simply put, not that much happens over the 102-minute run time, even as it avoids the predictability that plagues most rom-coms with a couple of satisfying twists. The movie’s basic love triangle plot is stretched to its absolute limit to fill the runtime, and as a result, a conspicuous emptiness and sluggishness replaces much of the excitement of its predecessor.
It’s a shame, because many of the additions to the cast had the potential to add new, exciting dimensions to a straightforward story. Jordan Fisher is excellent as John Ambrose McClaren, one of Lara Jean’s former crushes and love-letter recipient, who casts serious doubt on the status of Lara Jean and Peter’s relationship. Ross Butler, Holland Taylor, and Sarayu Rao are all also given promising opportunities to create new dynamics among characters we’re already familiar with, before losing momentum, and screen time, as the movie nears its conclusion. While some of those side plots might be further developed in a third movie, which is already in production, many of this movie’s pacing issues could have been resolved if the focus was not so squarely on the Lara Jean-Peter dynamic.
That’s not to say that TATBILB 2 isn’t worth the watch, especially if you liked the first. It still retains a lot of the teenage authenticity that made the first so endearing, from the level of imitation inherent in first relationships to the fear that you’re being left behind by your peers. And despite the strong focus on Lara Jean and Peter, most of Lara Jean’s emotional growth is actually achieved through her relationships with the women in her life, a welcome departure from most rom-com conventions. If TATBILB 3 can continue to play to these strengths, there’s still hope that the series can establish itself as essential teen viewing. But as it stands, TATBILB 2 will be, at best, the largely forgettable middle section, and at worst, the beginning of the end of a once-promising series.