The Teen Rom-Com Was Reborn In 2018

This year’s breakout teen movies, like To All the Boys I've Loved Before and Love, Simon, reglamorized old tropes for a new audience.

Nostalgia seems to be especially generative these days, in a media landscape where every old movie and TV show can now be easily accessed, mashed up, and rebooted, with the promise of a built-in audience. And classic teen movies from the ’80s, ’90s, and early ’00s — which evoke not only the viewer’s memories of their awkward high school years, but now a kind of meta-nostalgia for the very experience of watching the movie in the past — are some of the richest artifacts for today’s pop cultural historians to mine for meaning.

Ariana Grande, whose entire career can arguably be read as a performance art piece about ’90s pop, recently incorporated some of those movies into the music video for her hit breakup song “Thank U, Next,” a viral collage of faithfully re-created scenes from iconic teen fare like Bring It On and Mean Girls. She essentially cut a parade of recognizable costumes out of their (biting) cinematic narratives, not to comment on anything in particular, but just to bask in the not-so-distant memories. People who are just barely out of (or still living) their own teenage years, it seems, are already nostalgic for the last generation’s. So it makes sense that this year has also seen the rise a new class of teen rom coms, like To All the Boys I've Loved Before, Sierra Burgess Is a Loser, and Love, Simon, which — like Grande — make no secret of their affection for the established teen movie canon, from John Hughes to iconic second-gen ’90s and aughts films.

What made these movies feel new (and to many, exciting) is that all three feature the kind of protagonists who have historically been marginalized as comic relief or sidekicks in plots about thin, white, straight characters nursing secret crushes, making life-changing declarations of love, and coming into themselves as quirky outsiders. To All the Boys featured a Korean American protagonist as the nerdy girl who gets the guy, while in Sierra Burgess Is a Loser, the titular heroine is plus-size; in Love, Simon a gay teen gets the happy ending. These films earnestly embraced the teen tradition (each of the three heroes even finds love with some version of the same hot high school jock we’ve been seeing onscreen for decades, played in two cases by the same real-life heartthrob, Noah Centineo) and they worked — some better than others — as almost reparative experiences for those who had never seen themselves as main characters in the genre.

Skepticism about teen movie conventions fed the entire Not Another Teen Movie parody franchise through the aughts, which mocked everything from the reductive black best friend stereotype to the “transformation” of the already-hot girl in glasses into the heroine dating the high school hunk. And To All the Boys — the most successful of these three new movies, both artistically and through its cultural impact — works in large part because of the subtle way it updates familiar tropes while questioning the racial politics of its own reference points. But in many ways, the appeal of this year’s new wave of teen films was less about critiquing those conventions and more about reglamorizing them for a new audience.

To All the Boys’ script was based on a young adult novel by Jenny Han, who is Korean American and has spoken and written about how the book — and the film — were designed to showcase a woman of color as the romantic lead, without making the story about struggles over her racial identity. The protagonist, Lara Jean Covey, is the daughter of Korean and white parents, a bookish, nerdy teen who loves reading romance novels and watching rom-coms like, well, Sixteen Candles.

Lara Jean (played by Lana Condor) is something of an introvert, who wrote secret love letters years ago to the boys she’s in love with, which she never mailed. When her mischievous little sister mails them out, she ends up in a pretend relationship with Peter Kavinsky (Centineo), a lacrosse jock with a Jeep and perfect wavy hair who previously dated the most popular girl at school. The movie is the story of how their “fake” relationship turns into a real budding romance.

Han faced resistance from studios who wanted to whitewash the adaptation of her novel with a white protagonist, and she ultimately turned to Netflix. Asian Americans in pop culture are often portrayed as perpetual foreigners, rarely as leads or love interests; Han wanted Lara Jean to be “a modern-day children’s book heroine, the same kind of heroine I grew up reading, except I never really saw an Asian American girl be the heroine,” she explained. “She’s bright, she’s optimistic, she’s really romantic, she’s very much an American girl.”

In the movie, racial identity isn’t treated as a source of pain for Lara Jean, but rather a way of connecting with other people in her life, like her sweetly ineffectual white dad (John Corbett), who in one scene tries to cook a Korean dish for Lara Jean and her sisters that their mom used to prepare before she died. Lara Jean’s Korean heritage also becomes a source of bonding with Peter, who embraces her passion for the yogurt drink Yakult and has a taste for kombucha.

To All the Boys is a satisfying rom-com because it allows us to slot ourselves into exactly those familiar Sixteen Candles roles, now revamped in woke form.

In one important scene, as she and Peter sit with her little sister watching Sixteen Candles, Peter asks, “I’m sorry, but isn’t this character Long Duck Dong, like, kind of racist?” “Not kind of — extremely racist,” Lara Jean replies. “So why do you like this movie?” he asks. “Why are you even asking that question? Hello — Jake Ryan,” says the little sister. It’s a multilayered, meta moment in which the film acknowledges the racism of the teen movie tradition it’s paying tribute to. It also has Peter raise the issue so we can be sure that despite his white lacrosse bro exterior, Lara Jean — and by extension viewers — can still like him.

The comment also highlights the way teen rom-coms idealize their male protagonists, and have spoken to the teen girl (and gay) gaze. There have been so many articles about the mystique of Sixteen Candles’ Jake Ryan — the effortlessly cool senior, he’s virile and mysterious, surrounded by dumb friends, yet he can somehow see something in Samantha (played by Molly Ringwald), who, in the 1984 film’s stark binaries, is supposed to be the quirky choice in contrast to his gorgeously blonde party-girl girlfriend. Widespread nostalgia about the film’s "white boys will be boys" ethos came under scrutiny recently, as more critics have begun talking about how the story — and Jake Ryan’s role in particular, when he “passes off” his drunk girlfriend to a freshman nerd — seemed to normalize rape culture.

To All the Boys is a satisfying rom-com because it allows us to slot ourselves into exactly those familiar Sixteen Candles roles, now revamped in woke form, and leave behind the unsavory aspects of its ancestor’s cultural politics. Lara Jean is situated in her school’s social hierarchy as a Samantha, nerdy but hardly an outcast; as Alison Willmore put it, the film “racebend[s] the traditional Molly Ringwald figure into one played by a winsome hapa heroine.” Dating Peter — who loves how she expresses herself, her unique style, her Korean yogurt — makes her a star of the high school cafeteria, and we root for her.

But the film is also about Peter Kavinsky’s dreamy, ethical jockness; when he teaches Lara Jean to put his hand in her back pocket as part of their fake courtship, it’s a gesture that shows he’s respecting her boundaries, because she doesn’t want to kiss. The film is enamored with him — allowing us to gaze at his chest and arms as he sits in a hot tub (Lara Jean is chastely covered up) during the film’s steamiest love scene. His love for her eventually allows her to express herself beyond the letters, leaving us lusting for his vulnerable masculinity.

To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before gave Netflix some of its biggest viewership numbers ever, inspiring widespread thirst and making breakout stars of its leads. Lara Jean Covey costumes popped up during Halloween this year, speaking to the way the film’s retro-inspired teen iconography resonated in exactly the way Han hoped. (She said she advocated for casting Condor after seeing an Instagram photo of her in pastels next to a throwback-style soda fountain, a handy visual metaphor for the way Condor, and the movie itself, reclaim a space for Asian American girlhood within nostalgic Americana.) Condor’s Instagram following grew from 100,000 to 6 million.

But arguably the biggest winner was Centineo. He rocketed to the top of the Hollywood Reporter’s top actors chart; in the film’s aftermath, his Instagram fanbase grew from fewer than 1 million to more than 16 million followers. Centineo parodied his own role on James Corden’s late-night show and became, as New York magazine called him, “the best thirst architect the internet has ever seen.” Centineo’s success is a reminder that because these neo-teen rom-coms hew so closely to traditional scripts, they end up, to some degree, recentering the desirability of the most conventional white teen archetypes.

Centineo even got to play another version of his jock-with-a-heart-of-gold character a few months after To All the Boys became a sensation in another Netflix rom-com, Sierra Burgess Is a Loser. The film is a teen twist on Cyrano de Bergerac, in which the plus-size protagonist, Sierra Burgess (played by Emmy-nominated Stranger Things actor Shannon Purser in her first leading movie role) ends up in a catfishing phone relationship with a hot jock (Centineo), who thinks he’s actually texting a popular cheerleader.

Sierra, who is confident about her intellect and working to get into Stanford, struggles with her body image, evident in a monologue she directs at her parents — especially her mom — toward the end. “Do you have any idea what it's like to be a teenage girl and to look like this?” And Centineo’s character gets to be the one commended for looking beyond appearances: “You’re not everyone’s type, but you’re exactly my type,” he says to Sierra at the end of the movie.

Burgess sparked a widespread backlash and even calls for its removal from Netflix, fueled by many who found its portrayal of Sierra as a fat heroine offensive; others objected to the plot’s suggestion that catfishing is a viable romantic strategy, as well as jokes about a deaf character and the resurrected trope of the black best friend. Some defended the film, arguing that Sierra’s self-consciousness realistically reflects the way many people internalize cultural hostility toward fatness. Purser herself said, “The idea that I get to kind of redefine what is beautiful and whose story deserves to be told and showcase that, you know, big women have love lives and complex colorful lives like everybody else, that’s really important to me.” But the struggle with self-acceptance is already the usual story for fat protagonists, and many critics felt that in 2018 it was time to move beyond it.

In some ways, the same issue — making the struggle with acceptance the point of the story — is what hampers Love, Simon. Like To All the Boys, Simon was based on a 2015 young adult novel, in this case Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertelli. Albertelli is straight but had worked as a psychologist with queer teenagers and said she thought of her book “as a love letter to some of those clients.” And the film succeeded in finding an audience of teens — and former teens — hungry for gay representation.

Unlike To All the Boys, however, which purposely stayed away from the conventional tale of identity as a burden, Love, Simon was stuck — like many other LGBT films this year, as Adam Vary pointed out — in the usual convention of representing queerness through stories about coming out of the closet. Simon, the film’s protagonist is a white, gender-conforming, vaguely “alternative” teen boy. In one of the film’s opening lines — also emphasized in the trailer — he says, “For the most part, my life is totally normal. I'm just like you, except I have one huge-ass secret: Nobody knows I'm gay.”

Simon is in an ongoing email correspondence with another who’s gay but not out, known only as “Blue.” The plot is fully set in motion when a theater geek — more of an outsider than Simon — discovers his correspondence and starts blackmailing Simon so that he’ll help him date one of Simon’s friends. His plot to woo the friend through a dramatic declaration at a football game — a throwback to the iconic scene between Heath Ledger and Julia Stiles in Ten Things I Hate About You — goes awry, and he outs Simon online.

Some critics argued that Love, Simon was a meta-commentary on rom-coms. But in fact, the rom-com tropes it revisits — like the football game scene — are invoked as if they’ve never been used before, and the film doesn’t add or change anything that would queer those tropes in interesting ways. Love, Simon’s coming-out plot is both too much and not enough, and it’s emblematic of the film’s difficult balancing act in trying to lean into a story about coming out and also develop a fun, satisfying romance.

Simon himself explains that he had no reason to fear coming out — his friends don’t indicate that they’d have any problem with his hidden sexuality, while his mother is a feminist therapist (perfectly played in shades of beige by Jennifer Garner) and his dad (Josh Duhamel) is a “softy.” So there are no real dramatic stakes; the movie just seems to assume that the audience will automatically treat any coming-out as a momentous event.

Throughout the film, as he narrates his story, Simon makes jokes about gay stereotypes; in one scene where he imagines what his life in college might look like, “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” suddenly blares as a troop of pride-outfitted students dance behind him. “Maybe not that gay,” he jokes. The vignette would be funny if he weren’t already being presented as the “totally normal,” respectable gay. The film also includes a black femme character, Ethan (Clark Moore), who it turns out was added by Berlanti to expand the film’s representational scope, but in the plot Ethan serves only to teach Simon a lesson about the kinds of queer teens who don’t have the privilege of being “just one of the guys.”

These movies carried the burden of finding a way to turn what might seem like specific stories about identity into just another teen movie.

Blue turns out to be a soccer teammate of one of Simon’s straight male friends, whom he briefly interacts with throughout the movie. The revelation of his identity at the end of the movie is not without its charm; Blue and Simon meet at a Ferris wheel, in what is clearly meant to be an iconic scene of romance. But it can’t quite evoke the Sixteen Candles–like satisfaction of an idealized Jake Ryan finally getting together with a nerdy Molly Ringwald, because two perfectly popular, conventionally hot kids making out just doesn’t provide the same frisson of high school hierarchies shattering.

Greg Berlanti — the film’s director — has been masterful at inserting queer stories into mainstream genres, from the 2000 film The Broken Hearts Club to the groundbreaking gay teen kiss on network television with the character of Jack on Dawson’s Creek. But Love, Simon seems to have been limited by its original source material, and the need to make it a big studio release; a gay bar scene, for instance, was ultimately deleted.

Time magazine’s Daniel D’Addario wondered if Love, Simon was too late, describing it as “a milestone that feels overdue,” and one that “may have been outpaced by real life.” It’s true that the film acts as if the story of the white, gender-conforming closeted gay man is not already assumed to be the universal queer tale. Some humor about that might have made the movie feel more current. Then again, this was a teen film, but also a big studio release, and it’s clear it was meant to be a mainstream story that would reassure audiences about how far things have come for LGBT rights, not provide nuanced insight about intra-community issues.

To All the Boys, Sierra Burgess, and Love, Simon were all movies that carried the burden of finding a way to turn what might seem like specific stories about identity into just another teen movie — shedding baggage and biases without jettisoning the well-worn archetypes and narrative beats that viewers have come to expect. And if Love, Simon and Sierra Burgess both struggled to strike that balance, To All the Boys — perhaps in part because it most explicitly engaged with the possibilities and limitations of nostalgia and the teen tradition — seemed to manage it in a graceful way that resonated with both critics and audiences; Netflix has already announced a sequel.

Contemporary audiences seem endlessly nostalgic for the recent pop cultural past, even while they want entertainment to push the envelope and advance new conversations about identity, and it's hard to do both at once. If nothing else, by turning to old tropes, these films found new audiences and created new kinds of stars who will be shaping the landscape for years to come. ●

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