Pop culture advent calendar, Day 1: To All The Boys I've Loved Before - the hot tub scene
Inspired by NPR, every day (gulp) from December 1st to 24th, I will be highlighting
a pop culture moment from this year that I loved.
People say there is ingenuity in ripping up the rule book and scribbling out all its panels. I'm of the school of thought that trying to do something new with the formula is just as clever.
Romcoms and romance novels are formulaic, yes, but they were never about the endings. They were always about the journey, the messy business of unpicking how somebody feels about you, if anything at all. How to make room for love, one of our biggest teachers, and how it often runs alongside a journey towards self-actualisation.
The best romcoms make the most of that wealth of material, which is why romcoms and coming of age films remain my favourite genres of films. Done well, stripped of the worse of problematic elements we have all become more and more uncomfortable and angry about over time, they are for me the most gratifying films to watch. If you had to pick the last film you would watch on this earth, would it really be this year's gritty Oscar darling?
You've probably watched or read about To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before. Maybe because it's one of the first teen romcoms with multiple Asian leads in decades. Maybe because it lit up the internet for a few weeks in August. Maybe because it has just been greenlit for a sequel. Maybe because Lana Condor’s performance of an introverted romance reading teenage girl who was still very sure of herself was instantly iconic. Or maybe because nobody has worked harder than Noah Centineo's publicist, especially after he became the internet's new boyfriend for a time, as he did the rounds of every website’s digital platform. Or maybe because it's a cute film and your friend at a party mentioned it. It was everywhere for a time, and it showed in its success.
TATBILB, based on the popular young adult book by Jenny Han, is about Lara Jean Song Covey, played by Lana Condor, who is, as previously mentioned, a romance reading, imaginative and introverted teenage girl. She is one of three very close sisters, and she spends a lot of time with her family, reading and writing and baking, and she is very happy doing that. When she gets a crush, she channels those very powerful feelings into writing letters that she never sends.
TATBILB follows her life as it goes through a period of upheaval. Her older sister, her quasi maternal rock, moves across the world (literally) for college, and all her letters get posted out. Among the letter recipients is Peter Kavinsky, the school heartthrob, and her older sister’s very recent ex-boyfriend, Josh. To avoid confronting Josh and all that could result in pulling that thread, Lara Jean gets into a fake relationship with Peter K, who is trying to make his newly ex-girlfriend jealous. But what follows is not only a great addition to the fake relationship film canon, but a genuinely tender and sweet friends to lovers story.
For this entry in my pop culture advent calendar, I could pick a lot of scenes from TATBILB but the hot tub scene is a culmination of feelings, where Lara Jean and Peter stop tiptoeing around their feelings with one eye on the other and go all in. After Lara Jean doesn’t sit next to him on the coach (lol) Peter is sulking. And when Lara Jean, spurred on by Lucas, goes to talk to him, it is gradually revealed that yes, he went across town to get her favourite yoghurt from the Korean grocery store, and he genuinely wanted to sit next to her, and he is charmed by her and clearly into her. Then Lara Jean lets her guard down and they kiss!
It's been pretty obvious to the audience that Peter is all in for a while, but it's the vulnerability of this scene from both LJ and Peter that elevate it to squeal worthiness.
Up until this point, any vulnerability has an edge to it. Peter says he can write Lara Jean letters (the stuff of romance novels LJ is always reading) which makes her face light up, but he crashes that plane by saying it will make ex girlfriend Gen jealous. LJ and Peter have a conversation about LJ's fear of letting people in, and he quips about her not having a problem opening up to him, and she tells him that it's because their pretending, which brings out the face expression equivalent of snuffing out a match. And so on.
The movie has done its character work well. LJ is an introvert and a homebody but she's not a wallflower, or a pushover. Peter is a jock and flawed but he's ultimately kind, and respects LJ's boundaries. (Which is bare minimum but it’s a truth universally and reluctantly acknowledged that the bar is so low it’s in hell).
The hot tub scene is one of the big romantic moments - but it still feels specific to these characters. It's Romantic and romantic. It's where Peter says all he has to say, about wanting to sit next to her on the bus, about going to find her Korean yoghurt, is a free fall of feelings because there's no bravado or ego or evasiveness, just two people confronting their feelings for each other.
Part of the hype around TATBILB for me is relief. It’s a genuinely good film, no doubt, but it was so lovely to behold all the responses to this film. It’s not often we get a romcom that is so dedicated to its form, that doesn’t sneer at itself or its audience, but unequivocally opens its arm to audience swooning while giving us the writing and drawing out the performances needed to feel like every moment of intimacy is earned. I really loved it and while I’m always hesitant about sequels, I’m looking forward to watching this one.