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Review: More rom than com, ‘To All the Boys I've Loved Before’ sweetly nails the complexity of teen emotion

Review: More rom than com, ‘To All the Boys I've Loved Before’ sweetly nails the complexity of teen emotion
In "To All the Boys I've Loved Before," Noah Centineo stars as a sweet jock who gets a love letter never meant to be sent, and Lana Condor is the girl who wrote it to him long ago after a seventh-grade party. (Awesomeness Films / Netflix)

Susan Johnson’s sophomore feature is the adaptation of Jenny Han’s young adult novel “To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before,” a detailed portrait of the complex emotional lives of teenagers juggling parents, siblings and, most importantly, crushes.

Lana Condor stars as Lara Jean, the middle daughter of widower Dr. Dan (John Corbett). She whiles away her days in a fantasy world of romance novels and has a secret stash of unsent letters she’s written to her crushes over the years: boys from seventh-grade parties; camp; model U.N.; freshman dances; and even right next door, in the form of her dreamy longtime friend Josh (Israel Broussard), who is, unfortunately, the ex-boyfriend of her sister Margot (Janel Parrish). Mysteriously, her letters are sent to their recipients, and suddenly, all of Lara Jean’s romantic confessions are out in the world, for her crushes to see.

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“To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before,” scripted by Sofia Alvarez, has been billed as a rom-com, another example of the genre resurrection in the summer of 2018. This film is very much a rom, but it’s pretty slight when it comes to the com. Instead, the film takes seriously the complicated emotions of teenagers, who are ill-equipped to deal with their feelings towards themselves and each other.

As Lara Jean, Condor embodies the mixed-up teen angst of the film — she’s at once confused and immature, but she loves and feels deeply. But the film’s secret weapon is breakout star Noah Centineo as Peter, who, as her seventh-grade party crush, receives one of Lara Jean’s letters. He’s entangled with Lara Jean’s former best friend Genevieve (Emilija Baranac), and so the two pretend to date, in order to make Gen jealous, and hide Lara Jean’s stifled feelings for Josh. As it turns out, pretending to date is basically the same thing as dating.

Centineo brings soulful swagger to his role as the confident jock Peter. He’s earthy, grounded and always brings Lara Jean back to reality. While Josh is ever-present in Lara Jean’s imagination, Peter is in the here and now, taking up space and demanding attention. Their connection is honest and heartfelt even when it’s fumbling — and genuinely sexy.

Centineo is the big beating heart at the center of the somewhat reserved “To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before.” He’s a lot like his character, bringing out the best in this love story.

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‘To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before’

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 39 minutes

Playing: Starts Aug. 17, streaming on Netflix

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