“Its moments of clarity and forthrightness are outnumbered by those when it merely rambles along, seemingly resigned.“
by Ken Bakely
There’s something faintly mandatory about the experience of watching Michael Fimognari’s To All the Boys: Always and Forever. It operates as if it’s allowed only finish the trilogy and tie up loose ends, and not to breathe and explore its world or characters any further. The story it completes has guided us through the durable high school romance between Lara Jean (Lana Condor) and Peter (Noah Centineo), and now, they are faced with the crossroads that come at the close of their senior year. While they had planned to attend Stanford together, only Peter is accepted. Their backup plan – Lara Jean has been accepted into Berkeley, which would allow a relatively fair commute to meet each other at the weekend – is complicated as soon as it’s suggested, when the two go on a class trip to New York, Lara Jean is won over by the city, and has second thoughts about Berkeley when she is given the opportunity to attend NYU, even though this would put the couple on opposite ends of the country.
It’s an easy setup for this final entry, but the issues that arise are curiously presented – the story loses steam when telling itself. It’s not as swooning or confident in its own abilities as the previous two movies, and it’s not as compelling. The main problem is that the storyline is awkwardly juggled. Katie Lovejoy’s script, based on the third novel in the series by Jenny Han, struggles to work all of its developments and ideas into a cohesive whole. There are moments when it seems as if everything has stopped, and the movie just spins its wheels for a while; the New York trip, while nominally serving to introduce the film’s central conflict, is cumbersomely executed, bringing the plot to a halt to introduce something that could have been done much more organically. The movie’s main subplot – the impending wedding between Lara Jean’s father (John Corbett) and her stepmother-to-be (Sarayu Blue) – is strangely flat, with what could have been another look at Lara Jean’s family life largely relegated to background business, filling out some unresolved threads from previous entries instead of existing on its own. Considering Always and Forever’s nearly two-hour runtime, it’s strange that so much of it comes off as so underplotted. Instead, it just feels like a middling experience that seldom thrives. Its moments of clarity and forthrightness are outnumbered by those when it merely rambles along, seemingly resigned.
None of this is the fault of the cast. Condor and Centineo are likable as ever in the lead roles, and they do shine when the script allows them to seriously contemplate the predicaments faced by their characters at these critical junctures in their lives both individually and together. The film grants Lara Jean and Peter a welcome and impressive level of thoughtfulness when it comes to discussing their issues – albeit with the problem that there isn’t quite enough to deliver a resolution that’s genuinely earned, rather than obligatory. The first To All the Boys movie, while imperfect, succeeded when it allowed its characters to be people. They had knowledge of their situation and it truly felt as if they were making choices (realistically, not always smart ones) based on what they knew. But by Always and Forever, nuance and dimensionality have disappeared from their characterization entirely: there’s no longer that same genuine quality that was once so winsome. Their personalities have been flattened, and their behavior made less convincing. The movie’s overarching approach is distant and generic, a far cry from what these films have achieved in their finest achievements. It knows it’s time to end, but it doesn’t know how.