Stories have a transportative power, no matter what form they take. For some people, reading is escapism, and anyone who has ever enjoyed a novel as a way of escaping the world knows the particular joy, release, and catharsis a good book can offer. Teens, caught in the emotional throes of the years between childhood and adulthood, are particularly adept at escaping into novels. In stories, teenagers find characters like them, but often “better”—braver, stronger, smarter, prettier—caricatures, essentially, of who they wish they could be. When these characters are well-written, and when teenagers are able to keep a balance between fantasy and reality, a little escapism isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It can even be good, if it inspires young readers to live lives of greater virtue. But when the fantasies become more desirable than the real world to a degree where the reader stops living fully in the real world, then they can become dangerously captivating.
In the Netflix original movie To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before (based on the novel by Jenny Han) 16-year-old Lara Jean Covey is one such reader. Through her character, the movie demonstrates this propensity teenagers have to fantasize. While showing how this is one of the most endearing qualities about teens—and something that helps them cope with the many hurts, struggles, and stresses of the in-between years of adolescence—the movie equally shows how these fantasies can also lead to a skewed sense of reality, avoidance, and an inability to face real life. In focusing on Lara Jean’s fascination with, essentially, mythical Prince Charmings, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before illustrates how the fantasies in which a young person becomes immersed shouldn’t replace real life and real relationships.The beautiful thing about intentionality is that when you reach out, you just might find that people reach back.
Lara Jean (Lana Condor) lives in a fantasy world where the stories she reads and the life she lives have blurred into one space. Suffering lingering trauma from the loss of her mother at a young age, alongside the usual romantic and social growing pains of the pre-teen and teen years, Lara Jean, like many young adults, has strong feelings, and she doesn’t know what to do with them. So she dives into bad romance novels where she superimposes herself over the heroines, and she always gets her hero. Real life, and real romantic love, are too difficult for Lara Jean to face, but saccharine unreality in her novels—which she claims to love for their “camp”—is a comfortable safe space.
This safe space has become a cage for Lara Jean, however, and she doesn’t realize it. Because she can’t face her feelings head-on, she drags the language of her “campy” romance novels out into her real world and pens love letters to five boys—boys on whom she has (or has at one time had) powerful crushes. She hides away these letters, never intending them to be read by anyone but her. Lara Jean’s fantasy letters are a way for her to process her feelings. As she says, “Reading my letters reminds me of how powerful my emotions can be—how all-consuming.” It’s easy to daydream about love, because in your daydreams, you control the outcome, and you never get hurt. But when all your Prince Charmings are figments of your imagination, there is nothing real about that love at all. Your cage is in your mind—gilded and comfortable, perhaps, but lacking the actual fellowship that makes real love possible.
Intentionality to engage in fellowship with others is the only thing that can lead to authentic love, whether it’s of the romantic type or not. In this, there is a lesson and reminder to all of us watching the film, or reading the book. But sometimes, we need a little push. For Lara Jean, that push comes when her younger sister realizes the fantasy rut Lara Jean is stuck in and mails Lara Jean’s letters to the five boys. What follows is a series of alternatively cringeworthy and hilarious moments as Lara Jean discovers that not only are the letters missing from her closet, but they are now in the possession of the five boys, who confront her about them one at a time.
Perhaps most eye-opening for Lara Jean—and what, after the mailing of the letters themselves, begins the process of really dragging her tooth-and-nail out of her gilded cage of self-imposed fantasy—is how she painfully comes to find she doesn’t actually know the boys from her letters in the real world at all. The boy next door she fancies herself in love with she can’t face once he receives her letter, the boy from freshman year is gay (and she’s apparently the only one in the school who didn’t have a clue), and the boy who is supposed to be a dumb, popular, arrogant jock is actually anything but. Self-absorbed in escapism, Lara Jean forgot to look out—she forgot to build relationships.
The beautiful thing about intentionality is that when you reach out, you just might find that people reach back, and this is what Peter (Noah Centineo), the not-actually-dumb-jock, does for Lara Jean. As fascinated with Lara Jean as he is with her (ridiculous) letter, he makes a deal with her that they will pretend to date. This is a YA Rom-Com, after all, so the plot between Peter and Lara Jean at this point is a little silly—a tad contrived. Peter’s goal is to ostensibly make his ex-girlfriend jealous enough to want him back, and Lara Jean wants the boy next door to not think she’s in love with him, but what starts out silly and contrived quickly turns to sweet and sentimental. It becomes clear that Peter’s fascination with Lara Jean goes deeper, even as Lara Jean struggles to figure out how to navigate a world she’s become accustomed to escaping.
But Peter has been living in the real world for a long time, and it’s his job, in the story, to draw Lara Jean out into it. He woos her, taking her on dates and to parties and encouraging her to see herself as pretty, smart, thoughtful, unique, and desirable. But perhaps most important of all, Peter writes Lara Jean daily, personal notes. They are not long and florid and full of fantasy language, but Peter’s notes are real-life love letters, and unlike Lara Jean’s, which she hid away from the world, he actually intends for her to read them.
Peter’s intentionality demonstrates his love for her. It’s risky, and—as with any dealings with real people in the real world—it could lead to heartbreak and disappointment, but these are the things that make their relationship authentic and help Lara Jean to not only discover what real love is, but also to heal from her past hurts.
In To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, Lara Jean learns to replace fantasy with reality, and she does it with the help of a boy who loves her well, a family who comes around her in supportive ways, and a reordering of her perspective. Stories are meant to illuminate reality—to help us see what is true, to make what is beautiful more beautiful, to show how what is good is good. But stories can’t do that if we treat them as idols. Although Lara Jean probably wouldn’t use the term idol, this is essentially what she comes to realize over the course of the movie. Outside of God, anything we worship is a form of idolatry and can’t justly be called good. For Lara Jean, it took a push to get her out of the fantasy world she idolized, so she could find that intentional engagement with the real world leads to a better love story than she could have ever created on her own.