When “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” arrived on Netflix in 2018 (the first in the series), it was deemed a teenage rom-com hit by critics and audiences alike, both for its ingenious hook of a premise involving true love found within a fake relationship, and for a powerhouse performance from Lana Condor as Lara Jean, whose infectious energy seemed to brighten the dullest of tropes into something honest.
Unfortunately, the third and final installment of Lara Jean’s love story with teenage hunk Peter (Noah Centineo) has traded much of its sly maturity and sensitivity for a story so blatantly devoid of anything left to tell.
“Always and Forever” finds our lovebirds nearing the end of their senior year of high school, and after Lara Jean is denied admission into Stanford, their fairytale plan of going to the same school is destroyed. In addition, Lara Jean gains a new fascination with NYU, and the thought of potentially attending a school much further away brings with it anxieties of the couple’s ability to survive long distance.
The trouble is, no tension seems to exist in these conflicts in part because we have two films under our belt that have proven the pair’s stability, and also because the newest film never attempts to hold onto these troubles long.
Even worse, the identities of our leads seem more lost than ever before. This is particularly true for Lara Jean who's always been consumed by love but never has it felt like her struggles weren’t allowed to be her own, and the film seems content to sweep past her cultural heritage and leave it behind 10 minutes after the introduction.
The obsessive nature of the romantic relationship’s narrative focus also taints the film’s attempt to incorporate subplots. The drama involving Peter’s father (Henry Thomas) and his desire to reconnect with his son comes across as desperate fuel for the lead couple’s relationship drama more so than it does Peter’s own arch.
It’s overstuffed to the point that senior trips, graduation and weddings have no choice but to be mashed into awkward montages, and the film drags even when it has no time to take its foot off the gas.
Condor and Centineo occasionally find pockets of magic in the film’s quieter moments to remind us why we fell in love with the hopeless romantics in the first place, and the supporting cast is still as strong as ever, but these moments are brief and serve as a mere reminder of the lost charm that flowed through every minute of the first film’s veins.
By the time we limp to the film’s syrupy conclusion, it feels more like a depressive sink into the genre’s oldest cliches than an accurate representation of the character’s hard-earned growth.
It’s all inoffensive enough to pass as this year’s snuggly Valentine’s Day fare, but the squandered potential of the series' initial freshness ensures you won’t remember it the next time the holiday rolls around.