When I was in my awkward, painful late teens, romantic comedies were all the rage. Girls my age couldn’t stop thinking—and talking—about the dreamy guys featured in movies like The Notebook, Mean Girls and Twilight. (I realize that these must seem ancient by now.) We all wanted a Noah, Aaron, Edward or Jacob. But we would never have them. Because, later rather than sooner, we found out that guys aren’t really like that. Guys don’t build you houses. They don’t just offer to tutor you. And they’re definitely never superhuman.
But is it a bad thing that these boys weren’t real? In The Notebook, the protagonist couple fights all the time and cheats on the people they’re actually with. In Mean Girls, Cady dumbs herself down to get the guy. And the Twilight series, to be honest, portrays a toxic, overly-dependent relationship. Love can hurt, sure. But if it hurts that much, you might have to look for something… healthier.
Recently, on a calm (read: bored) Sunday night, I watched the Netflix film To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, based on Jenny Han’s bestseller from 2014. In this film, protagonist Lara Jean Covey writes love letters to every boy she’s ever had a crush on, and keeps them in a box in her closet—until they’re mysteriously sent out. Of course, drama ensues.
The movie made me think, more than I thought it would. On the one hand, it totally satisfied the longing for a romantic drama I didn’t even realize I had. It brought me back to my own time in high school and all its problems: liking boys without knowing how to tell them, panicking at the slightest interaction with them—you know, the usual. On the other hand, however, the movie was not quite like the chick flicks I’d seen before. Of course, a lot of things have changed. Couples pose together for Instagram pictures, a single emoji suffices for a sweet text, and someone in the film “insults” a guy by calling him a Bon Iver-wannabe. But the way that young love is portrayed is different too.
At first I thought it was just me who had changed: luckily, I know more about boys now than I did back then. Maybe now I can just see through their tricks, through the trouble in their eyes. But the more I thought about it, the clearer it became that the boys were different. They communicated. They didn’t make grand romantic gestures, but just said what they were thinking. They were honest about liking, or not liking, someone. They openly discussed what their breakups were like for them. They weren’t, didn’t even pretend to be, complex and emotionally unavailable.
To All the Boys confirmed some things I learned, sometimes the hard way. Things that would have been helpful to know at sixteen. It’s okay to be friends with an ex. It’s okay to talk to them—after all, you had feelings for them and you can talk about that, without dying inside or killing one another. It’s also okay to love someone after they break up with you, and then to notice how this love slowly fades as you move on and think about why the break-up really happened. And you can learn from this process.
It’s okay to not have sex. Not on a first date, not on a second. It’s okay to want your first kiss to be special and real, because that makes for the best ones. It’s also okay to let go of your high standards every once in a while, and kiss someone just because you feel like it.
Most of all, it’s okay to fall madly in love with someone. And it will probably happen more than once. That’s fine, too: to like someone and then to like someone else. You’re still young. The odds of having found the love of your life are pretty small. But that doesn’t make the feelings any less significant or truthful. And at some point, if you want things to be more than a fantasy, you’ll have to be honest to both yourself and the person you like. It’s the only way anything real can happen.
I wish I had known these things, at that age. To all the boys I’ve loved before: I loved you. I really did. I thought about you. I wish I’d told you. But I was taught to wait, to be swept off my feet, to fake being okay, to do desperate things to get your attention instead of just telling you how I felt.
If you’re sixteen, this movie will teach you a lot about relationships. It will show you that it’s fine to be a virgin at your age, to have feelings for an ex, and to kiss someone for whatever reason you want to. And if you’re twenty-four, like me, then this movie will make you rest soundly, knowing that today’s youth is getting more of the right information than we did. Hopefully you recognize yourself a little bit: the insecure person you were, and the more or less stable adolescent you have become, through trial and error. This movie personally made me miss being in love as head-over-heels as you can be at sixteen, but it also made me realize that I’ll have plenty of chances to feel it again. I don’t believe there is just one person for you out there: all you need to do is get out there. So, to all of you who added this film to their Netflix lists: hopefully To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before will help you confirm that you’re on the right track. Plus, it will acknowledge that the nerdy things you liked are actually cool. Watching films from the eighties is cool. Choosing to wear clunky boots instead of Uggs is cool. You’re cool now.