Netflix is wrapping up one of its most successful properties this week with To All the Boys: Always and Forever. It's the third and (purportedly) final feature-length adaptation of the YA novels by Jenny Han, focusing on the tumultuous adolescent love life of one Lara Jean Covey (Lana Condor). Wrapping up this series puts a bow on a project that kicked off in 2018 and ranks among Netflix's less talked-about successes. It's also a low-key flex on the part of the big red machine to show that they can roll out feature films with the kind of hooky urgency of their best TV shows.
The To All the Boys series is classic YA storytelling, buoyed by charm and some great performances. Lara Jean is a deeply romantic high school girl — the kind who writes letters to the boys she crushes on but never sends them. Until her meddlesome little sister does exactly that, setting off a series of misunderstandings and deceptions — classic rom-com stuff — that end with her falling in love with dreamy lacrosse jock Peter (Noah Centineo). That's the first movie; the second movie complicated Lara Jean and Peter's romance with the re-introduction of old flames, both his and hers. If the third movie hews to the book it's based on, Lara Jean and Peter will be confronted by that most formidable obstacle to high-school relationships: the looming threat of college.
2018 was a mini golden age for the rom-com revival, and one that was reflected on Netflix in a big way. That year alone, the streaming platform premiered To All the Boys I've Loved Before, the Zoey Deutch/Glenn Powell movie Set It Up, the tween smoocher The Kissing Booth, the Barb-from-Stranger Things-starring Sierra Burgess Is a Loser, and the holiday-themed The Princess Switch, pretty much re-igniting the romantic comedy for the streaming generation. Of those films, three (To All the Boys, Kissing Booth, and The Princess Switch) became franchises, although only To All the Boys has felt the narrative pull to see how these characters end up.
While there was already a fair amount of anticipation for To All the Boys based on the popularity of the novels, the film's breakout success was unexpected, at least to the degree that it happened. Netflix, never one to be transparent with its streaming date, claimed that To All the Boys was one of its most-viewed original films ever. That seemed to be backed up by external data like Instagram follower spikes for stars Lana Condor and Noah Centineo, but while the numbers were typically murky, anecdotal evidence that To All the Boys was A Thing abounded. In particular, Centineo became the kind of breakout star rarely seen since the nineties: a rom-com boy who gets everybody squealing and sighing. Given that Centineo also appeared in Sierra Burgess Is a Loser, he became something of a Netflix poster boy. Both Centineo and Condor big-budget movie appearances (Charlie's Angels and Alita: Battle Angel, respectively), though it's worth griping that Condor's Jubilee character from X-Men: Apocalypse didn't reap the rewards of Condor's sudden spike in fame to merit placement in Dark Phoenix (honestly, she was better off).
Beyond its success as a romantic comedy, To All the Boys was also a YA adaptation done right, leaving the audience on a genuine cliffhanger for the second movie, as Lara Jean's ex John Ambrose shows up on her doorstep in the film's closing moments. To All the Boys: P.S. I Still Love You premiered in 2020 and picked up the story where Lara Jean and John Ambrose left off. And while setting up a sequel movie was far from a novel concept, it's not so common in rom-coms. By teasing the next To All the Boys movie so directly, Netflix turned the films into something closer to a TV series. Ironically, the platform that trained audiences to watch entire seasons of TV in one sitting was now turning a standalone movie experience into something to watch in installments. Much like the Marvel Cinematic Universe took the hookiness of serialized genre TV and created an interconnected sequence of movies to watch for the entire epic experience, Netflix did the same with a teen rom-com. Despite the fact that there's been a year or more between the To All the Boys movies, it feels closer to a YA series adaptation like Dash & Lily than it does a film trilogy.
And so this week, we arrive at the grand conclusion. The Avengers: Endgame of the Lara Jean Cinematic Universe. And much like the MCU, there's nothing stopping the LJCU from continuing on past this trilogy, in different forms or on different trajectories. Netflix has baited the hook on one of its most addicting regular series, even if they only emerge one movie at a time.
To All the Boys: Always and Forever drops on Netflix February 12th.
Joe Reid is the Managing Editor at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.