Editor’s Introduction: In February, as we all anticipated the release of P.S. I Still Love You, the To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before sequel (TATBILB2), Catherine Fung and Marguerite Nguyen took some time to write To All the Boys We’ve Loved Then & Now: Reliving Our Asian American Adolescence. We were so excited to publish this collaborative, reflective conversation, in which these long-time friends and colleagues explained why the film, and the novel on which it was based, recaptured,“an adolescence that we wish we’d had” as Gen X/Millennial Asian American women.
A couple of weeks after the sequel was released, they extended that conversation to see what insights the sequel inspired. Below is this follow-up, where they talk about watching the film with actual teenage viewers, the politics of representing “interracial” love in a “postracial” era, and how this is a “romance” series where heterosexual desire isn’t really the point.
The following conversation contains spoilers for To All The Boys 2: P.S. I Still Love You.
Catherine Fung: So, how many times have you seen the movie?
Marguerite Nguyen: I’ve only seen it twice! But I’m going to watch it again this week. What did your students think?
CF: I have seen it once every day since it came out! For the third time, I saw it with my students. A club at school arranged a screening, and more than forty kids stayed after school, on Valentine’s Day, to watch it together. It was really cute. They were super emotionally invested. I loved that I was able to witness their reactions the entire time.
MN: Did they approve of Lara Jean’s choices?
CF: They are BIG John Ambrose fans.
MN: Peter pales (literally) next to John Ambrose.
Peter says, “Let’s never fight again,” one of my students remarked, “That’s not conflict resolution!”
CF: They kept responding as if they’re so much wiser than she is. Like, the scene at the treehouse, when Lara Jean and Peter fight, and in the end Peter says, “Let’s never fight again,” one of my students remarked, “That’s not conflict resolution!”
MN: They’re so smart. I wouldn’t have known that wasn’t conflict resolution at that age. I don’t think I actively thought about how to argue until about 25.
CF: And then another piped in, “Where’s the restorative justice?”
MN: What? Please explain.
CF: Earlier that week, we had a discussion on restorative justice practices, all about how to have conversations to restore trust in the community.
MN: Oh ok. Peter needs to do a lot more to correct the wrongs.
CF: Exactly. Well, and Lara Jean, too. Because she was totally in the wrong for not telling John Ambrose that she was dating Peter.
MN: They’re so much better equipped than I was. Good for them! So they are Team John Ambrose all the way.
CF: Oh yes, totally #TeamJohn. Which actually surprised me. I had thought there would be more Peter loyalists. They loved him in the first movie.
MN: Some of my students thought Peter was pretty boring in the first movie, in narrative terms. Like he’s not that dynamic–nice but boring, flat. But a lot of students liked him too.
CF: Pretty quick in the second movie, my kids turned against Peter. A couple moments: At the party, when he’s playing flip cup, some of them were like, “Ew, he’s such a bro.” And then the whole bit where he copied the Edgar Allan Poe poem, my students were very quick to condemn him for plagiarism. So yeah, it makes sense that my nerdy students would prefer John Ambrose.
MN: None of my students are #TeamPeter either! One is super angry at Lara Jean for her decisions. Another student couldn’t even bear to watch it. She watched about 15 minutes and shut it down. So they’re also #TeamJohnAmbrose all the way. I would bet that Lara Jean chooses John Ambrose down the road.
CF: My students do say that John Ambrose is too perfect.
MN: One of my students said that, too–John Ambrose is too perfect, and yeah he plays the piano, but he also knows that Lara Jean has a boyfriend and doesn’t back off. John Ambrose’s deviled egg outfit is so cute though. And every time he smiles, Lara Jean melts.
CF: I was hoping he’d sing and dance too, given Jordan Fisher’s resume!
MN: Maybe in the next one he sings and dances! And makes the whole pocket twirl thing Peter does look really sad.
CF: When you and I watched it, we were remarking that John Ambrose does not seem like any teenage boy we’ve ever known.
MN: Nope. No teenager I’ve ever known. Or adult for that matter.
CF: He makes me feel like a dirty old broad. Because I am seriously crushing on John Ambrose McLaren as played by Jordan Fisher.
High school would’ve been much more fun if it’d been populated by people like that.
MN: A former student texted me and said she never knew such beautiful people in high school. High school would’ve been much more fun if it’d been populated by people like that. Lucas is awesome; Chris and Trevor, so fun.
CF: When Lara Jean and John Ambrose kissed, my students were cheering! And when Lara Jean gets that look on her face and John Ambrose realizes she still loves Peter, they were shouting, “NOOOO!” And were basically screaming “NOOOO!” the entire ending. I really wish I had taken a video. So many feels!
MN: I kinda felt the same way. At the same time, it’s very realistic isn’t it? Sometimes you can’t control the pull.
CF: Yeah, we’ve all made questionable choices. And I think the film acknowledges that. This time was the first time I saw it with closed captioning, which notes the songs and song lyrics. So in the end, when Lara Jean has her voiceover about the kind of love she wants after having chosen Peter, the song playing has the lyric, “I don’t know a lot about love,” my students were like, “Yeah, you certainly don’t!” There were various moments in the film where I felt the music was undercutting Lara Jean’s choices. Earlier, when Lara Jean decides to dress up for Peter’s lacrosse game before they break up, the song playing is BlackPink’s “Kill This Love.” I also notice that scenes between Lara Jean and John Ambrose are lit with warm tones, whereas that final scene with her and Peter is in gray/blue. So maybe the film is presenting a wink to the audience, like maybe we’re supposed to question whether Peter is the right choice.
MN: There’s that moment when John Ambrose and Lara Jean are making snow angels and they seem so perfect together, it echoes the snow globe that Lara Jean wins at the carnival with the perfect couple figurines inside. In the book, John gives her the snow globe for her birthday while Lara Jean and Peter are broken up. Is this another wink to the audience that they’re the “right” couple? Maybe it makes sense for her to pick Peter now, but John Ambrose is the guy she’d choose later.
CF: There was a cluster of black and brown girls at the screening who had their own running commentary. I heard them say, “You chose the white boy over him?” Which got me thinking about the recasting of the role from Jordan Burtchett to Jordan Fisher. In our previous piece, we had talked about how Lara Jean seems to only like white boys in the books, and it was looking that way in the first movie (with the exception of Lucas, who turns out to be gay). I had read John Ambrose McLaren as pretty WASPy. He’s described in the book as looking like a “young Robert Redford.”
MN: John Ambrose McLaren does seem pretty WASPy. If he had a different name I wonder what difference that’d make. I could see a lot of Asian American students doing Model UN now. In the books he’s referred to as John. Lara Jean wants to call him Johnny, not John Ambrose. Johnny McClaren as Lara Jean’s love object sounds pretty bad.
CF: Peter actually calls him Johnny in the movie when they meet at the tree house! I wonder if we’re supposed to treat it as a dig. Well, I suppose the name John Ambrose could code as African American in the book’s original setting of the South. Just as the name Lara Jean is markedly Korean American to anyone who can recognize it as such. Which makes John Ambrose’s confession that it was because of Lara Jean that he started going by his middle name even more poignant. Two racialized kids embracing their identities.
MN: Right. The Pacific Northwest relocation kind of messes things up. I wonder what the students think about the book’s Charlottesville setting, like how much of a difference that would make to how they respond to Lara Jean’s choices. Land of Thomas Jefferson.
CF: They set up the landscape to have us believe that interracial relationships are totally commonplace, nothing unique.
The movie sets up this imaginary, idyllic, liberal Pacific Northwest landscape in which we are made to believe that race doesn’t matter at all in relationships.
MN: Yeah the whole Oregon thing confuses me. Why not just set it in Seattle? Or Vancouver? I guess maybe that was the weird compromise between a white Virginia suburb/old plantation and a more diverse setting. Oregon is white but as part of the Pacific Northwest connotes diversity, if you twist it around enough. To me it just ends up being weird, like it’s not plausible. Any fictional town in Oregon would be pretty racist, worse than very white Portland.
CF: The movie sets up this imaginary, idyllic, liberal Pacific Northwest landscape in which we are made to believe that race doesn’t matter at all in relationships. But I suppose for you and me, especially with awareness of what the novel’s original setting of Charlottesville now signifies, we can’t help but read race as mattering very much in relationships.
MN: Right. My students critique the movie for being “post-racial,” but they do live in a somewhat post-racial era, at least in their circles. Their networks are incredibly diverse and they have so much “diversity” access compared to us when we were younger. My group of immigrant friends was not the norm in my high school. It was unusual. And as we’ve talked about a lot, a girl like us would never be a love object in a movie, let alone find herself being courted by two charming suitors. I think our students probably think we’re so weird for liking these movies so much.
CF: They probably think we’re weird for getting so excited over the signifiers of Asianness! I got teary eyed when I saw Lara Jean and Kitty putting on their hanboks.
MN: And when they go to their Korean family for new year! It’s such a big deal to have that in a teen movie.
CF: So when we have an Asian girl caught in a love triangle between a white boy and a black boy, does race matter? In some ways, even as the film’s imaginary landscape erases race, it also deliberately writes race as an undercurrent of Lara Jean and John Ambrose’s relationship. I think the casting of Jordan Fisher makes him more of a match for Lara Jean. The flashback scenes of them reading Harry Potter together feature young actors who are both clearly mixed race kids. There’s the unsaid acknowledgement that their being mixed is another thing they have in common.
MN: There’s also their shared sense of being aware of how race affects their desirability. When he talks about girls using him just to get to Peter. Which is perhaps similar to her insecurities about not measuring up to Gen.
CF: In addition, Jordan Fisher is smaller in stature, so when they are shown together, like when they’re sitting side-by-side at the piano or dancing together at the Snow Ball, they look more like equals, whereas Noah Centineo towers over Lana Condor, replicating the familiar white man-Asian woman power dynamic we’ve seen so often in movies.
MN: I would like to check in with our students in 10 or 15 years. I have hope that their ideas for who they should be with play out in real life! John Ambrose is an alternative to Peter, a better alternative maybe, but love is hard, and I’m reluctant to judge Lara Jean as a young person of color trying to figure out desire in what I read in the books to be a mostly white environment. I wasn’t as bothered by the fact that Lara Jean chooses Peter over John Ambrose.
The story is ultimately about her development, let’s remember. The boys aren’t really the point.
CF: I think I’m forgiving of Lara Jean for choosing Peter because I can recognize so much of her in me. She gets in her own head too much, lets her insecurities get in her way, jumps to assuming that Peter wants to break up with her after their first fight. In the film, she says, “I’ve never been a girlfriend before; I hope I’m good at it” and “I didn’t read the girlfriend handbook.” So she’s not ready for a John Ambrose yet. The story is ultimately about her development, let’s remember. The boys aren’t really the point.
MN: Besides, Peter’s not THAT bad. At least in the movie, he’s still tender. Like when Peter apologizes to Lara Jean for being late to their coffee date, and even though it wasn’t really his fault that he couldn’t let her know he was running late, he still apologized for not making plans that wouldn’t have left her hanging. So good!
CF: I also really love the idea that after people break up, they can also unbreak their relationship. Like when Lara Jean and and Gen sort of make peace. Their friendship was really the relationship to be mourned here, more so than one with any boy.
MN: Right. That’s even more the case in the books. The boys are actually secondary to Lara Jean’s relationships with her sisters, friends, and deceased mother, even. We get less of that in the film.
CF: So, what do you hope to see in the next film?
MN: I’d like to see more of Trevor and Chris. That’s another seemingly mismatched, interracial couple. Trevor doesn’t get a ton of screen time but when he’s on he’s good–charming, sings, funny. The movie definitely sets up his relationship with Chris to be explored.
CF: I want Lucas to get his own storyline! Even though he doesn’t in the books. I like the scene at the party where Lara Jean assures Lucas that once they’re done with high school and out in the “real world,” boys will be lining up to be with him. I’d like to see Lucas get a taste of that when they do their college tours. In the way that we see this movie as fulfilling what we had wished for our Asian American adolescence, I’d love to see the same for queer adolescence.
MN: I’m excited to see that develop too. Lucas is going to own the screen once he gets his own story. I think that’s a cool thing about TATBILB–it’s like a live story that’s still evolving.
CF: Well, like one line in the second film says, “This is only the beginning.” Perhaps we are constantly getting new beginnings. So in that way, who’s to say that certain endings are “meant to be.” It’s also okay to leave things up to the uncertainty of timing.
MN: Right. The books leave us with uncertainty. Han is always making endings open-ended. And the movies’ departures from the books, partly based on real-time feedback, enact that too.
CF: Yes, perhaps had John Ambrose gotten the letter first, Lara Jean would have fallen for him first. But who’s to say they would have worked out, either. Or maybe we’re supposed to believe that John Ambrose is the kind of guy Lara Jean would be with after high school and even college, after she’s learned to hurt and heal a few times first.Become a Patron!