Netflix is no stranger to the YA audience, having produced such hit series as ‘13 Reasons Why’ and ‘Riverdale’ in the past, but now it has two new original movies that everyone is talking about.
Released mid-August, and based on the novel by Jenny Han, ‘To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before’ tells the story of an insecure high schooler named Lara Jean (Lana Condor) who has five letters that she has written across her lifetime for the five boys she has loved, that mysteriously get sent to them. One of them is her next door neighbour, Josh (Israel Broussard), who also happens to be her sister’s ex-boyfriend. Another is Peter (Noah Centineo), the boyfriend of a former friend, Gen (Emilija Baranac). After getting dumped, Peter suggests to Lara Jean that they pretend to going out in order to make the people who they really like – Gen and Josh – jealous.
The main attraction going for ‘Sierra Burgess is a Loser’ is that it stars Shannon Purser, best-known as the ill-fated Barb of ‘Stranger Things’. In a story that feels part ‘A Cinderella Story’ (remember that Hillary Duff slash Chad Michael Murray movie we were all obsessed with back in 2004?), part ‘Sixteen Candles’, it relates how Jamey (Noah Centineo again, funnily enough) starts texting Sierra, believing she is a popular girl at school named Veronica (Kristine Froseth). Sierra works out that Veronica gave him Sierra’s number as a joke, and they work out a deal that while Sierra tutors Veronica, Veronica will help her keep up pretenses with Jamey.
The opening titles and music of ‘Sierra Burgess’ recall ‘Stranger Things’ but aside from that and its star, the comparisons end there. The tough and sassy Sierra is lovable and perfectly cast in Purser. However, one feels that a better movie could have been had for her. As for the rest of the cast, newcomer Froseth is impressive as Veronica and Centineo is fine (he’s better in ‘To All the Boys’) but Alan Ruck (‘Ferris Bueller’s Day Off’) as Sierra’s father and RJ Cyler (best-known for ‘Power Rangers’ and ‘Me, Earl and the Dying Girl’) as her best friend are frustratingly underused.
The romance plot is somewhat cringey as the lovebirds’ idea of ‘hilarious’ messaging entails sending pictures of animals looking silly to one another. At the same time, one could argue that there’s a childlike charm in that, given they are kids after all. Less forgivable is how the lengths Sierra goes through to get closer to Jamey while keeping up the charade are unrealistic and dumb. The more interesting storyline in ‘Sierra Burgess’ can be found in the story of Sierra and Veronica’s burgeoning friendship. It develops in a believable way and works as a touching anti-‘Mean Girls’ story.
Like ‘Sierra Burgess is a Loser’, ‘To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before’ is about ten minutes too long – but it is the better movie. Its story is different to anything that’s preceded and invites you into an intimate set-up from the get-go. Key to this is of course the character of Lara Jean, and Condor is truly wonderful in the part. As we’ve seen with ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ and ‘Searching’, Asian Americans are getting their due (well overdue, in fact) leads in movies, and in ‘To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before’, we get a look-in at the life of an Asian American family – Lara Jean’s father is played by ‘Sex and the City’ stars John Corbett, older sister Margot (Janel Parrish) is leaving to go to Scotland for university, forcing Lara Jean that bit more into maturity, and younger sister Kitty, played wonderfully by Anna Cathcart, is that younger sister with a big personality so many families have.
‘To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before’ relates the universal experience of female adolescence, and its many, many embarrassments. The idea that your secret crushes know in depth how you feel about them is a nightmare come true - all teenage girls do weird things not limited to love letters. In that way, the characters and young peoples’ experiences drawn up in the film are empathetic, but more importantly, the movie is entertaining and very sweet. It is not only insightful but fun, and thus audiences beyond the YA target market will find much to enjoy in it.