To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before: are our expectations of teenagers too low? What to watch instead?

Netflix recently released its teen romance film, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before. It quickly took its audience (read: young girls) by storm. A major reason for its success is definitely the male lead’s good looks; the movie has also received praise for charming characters and a lovable plot line. However, a question lingers, if a movie about two teenagers faking a relationship and then falling in love (big surprise) makes a good movie, how low are our expectations from films about teenagers?

The absolutely ridiculous plotlines

teenagers, to all the boys i've loved before

Our teenage pasts may always return to haunt us. But I bet that none of you were ever stupid enough to try any of the following methods:

1. Keep an archive of secret love letters with the one plan of keeping them unsent, but with the correct address and a stamped envelope for each of them.
2. Write one of those letters to your older sister’s (then) boyfriend.
3. Accidentally send a love letter to someone. Then try to convince them that you do not like them by avoiding them and faking a relationship with someone else.
4. Have a huge misunderstanding with your (fake) girlfriend because she doesn’t let you talk at all (for the sake of having a plot). One wonders how easily the situation could have been resolved by texted explanation.

Even if I ignore these absurdities, the entire plot can be predicted after the first 10 minutes by a 5th grader.  Depicting teenagers as vapid idiots for the sake of lazy storytelling seems like a strange choice considering the intended audience are teenagers.

The plastic complex characters

teenagers, to all the boys i've loved before

Movies exist in which the teenagers are treated as multidimensional human beings with a wider emotional range than a teaspoon. Take Me, Earl and the Dying Girl serves as examples of such storytelling. There are movies where teenagers act like species so dumb that no other generation can grasp them, like Mean Girls. And then there are movies like To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, which desperately try to build an emotionally complex teenager by forcing it upon them through ridiculous backgrounds.

In this movie, both leads are without a parent; this gives the girl severe abandonment issues causing her to avoid telling her fake dating guy that she likes him back for real. Embedding insincere complexities feel like an insult to teenagers because the writers, who created the edgy backstory overlooked how characters can rationally develop and change with context. This reflects a thought process which is the equivalent of telling your teenage daughter “I trust you, I just don’t trust the rest of the world!” The writer seems to underestimate teenagers’ intelligence, and your mom clearly doesn’t trust you.

Aren’t all teen movies like this?

teenagers, to all the boys i've loved before

The short answer to this would be, yes, most movies about teenagers make the same assumptions about the demographic. This also the reason most movies about teenagers are also bad movies. By no means am I asserting that all teenagers are infallible intellectuals. Rather, the mistakes one makes as a teenager are the kind that alters their perspective of the world. Usually, the mistakes are not objectively and obviously moronic choices. It is an age when they develop their own sense of the world. Therefore, any movie for this audience should reflect the shifts in maturity and personality that teens experience.

Movies that get it right

An example of this being done right is Juno. The lovable and quirky protagonist has sex, just like 48% of teens in American high schools. She learns to make hard decisions that reflect her personal growth over the course of the pregnancy. Another fantastic teen rom-com movie is the grossly under-the-radar Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist. Unlike Juno, this movie doesn’t grapple with the subject of maturing in your teens. It only focuses on an adorable love story, where both lead characters are intelligent and quirky. The movie is succesfully relatable and, more importantly, a good story.

Movies such as Scott Pilgrim vs the World, The Breakfast Club, Submarine, Call Me By Your Name, and Perks of Being a Wallflower, are additional evidence that it is possible to write, produce, and direct stories about teenagers in a non-disdainful manner.  I am sure the list is long of teen movies that misunderstand young people and feel written by condescending adults.

My main objection with To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, is not just the subpar story. My main objection is if we think this is acceptable and a ‘good’ movie, we encourage flawed storylines and set the bar too low.

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