Watching the third chapter in the To All the Boys saga, Always and Forever, the expectation is one of diminishing returns: How often can you throw a wrench into the dreamy mechanics of the perfect high school couple and be moved by their solving it? I imagine the challenge of writing its finale, Always and Forever, was finding yet another conflict that is threatening enough to spark genuine drama but benevolent enough not to undermine the anchoring characteristics of its two stars, Lara Jean Covey (Lana Condor) and Peter Kavinsky (Noah Centineo), as two aggressively adorable, thoughtful, well-intentioned lovers.
Fortunately, the Michael Fimognari-directed To All the Boys: Always and Forever strikes that balance by facing the couple against the natural evolution an any high school romance: choosing a college. When college prospects give Lara Jean and Peter different options, the two have to decide how to navigate their love for each other with making the right choices for themselves as individuals.
Such an organic conflict allows both Lara Jean and Peter to remain perfect–almost too perfect–as the big-hearted duo you’re cheering for and paves the way for one of a few anchor moments that make the film memorable. Different from To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before and its sequel P.S. I Still Love You, this one sets itself apart as a travel movie as Lara Jean’s family visits Korea and returns to Portland just before Lara Jean and her senior class take a trip to a pre-pandemic New York City. Always and Forever leans into the beauty of Seoul and New York, which would have been endearing enough on their own under normal circumstances, but are made even more charming during a time where most of us have lost the wonder of seeing new places for the first time.
It’s ambitious in how much story it fits in–there’s Lara Jean’s father (John Corbett) and his relationship with Trina (Sarayu Blue), Kitty’s newfound interest in boys, Lara Jean’s relationship with her sisters, and more–and while so many moving pieces take effort to make a cohesive narrative, they weave together effortlessly. Prior groundwork saves us the need for rehashed character introductions, and instead allows the movie to tie up character arcs for not only its main characters, but lend attention to some secondaries as well, from Lara Jean’s dad to her best friend, Chris (Madeleine Arthur). The only new character introduction is Peter’s absentee dad as an attempt to deepen Peter’s personal arc, which I’m not entirely convinced was necessary, but is also restrained enough to not do harm.
Its focus on family dynamics is one of the most fulfilling features of the series that puts a relationship in the context of a full world that surrounds it. We see Lara Jean and Peter mature towards this post-high school crossroads in their lives, but also what that maturation means for Lara Jean and Trina, or Lara Jean and her sisters, or Lara Jean and her own career. As Lara Jean unexpectedly begins to fall in love with New York City, you can’t help but feel it’s another natural and worthy love–she’s a dreamer and a writer, and the city wouldn’t take much to lure her in and make her question a future with Peter versus one where what might be best for her life might mean a future without him. For viewers, a few adventures with NYC’s food scene and stealing a pink couch and dragging it onto the J train with some new friends are more than enough to drive home the feeling of being young in New York.
As the series closes, the highest praise I can offer this film–and the ones before it–is that you want to spend time with its characters. The perfectly measured stakes and aspirational romance arguably come second to the enjoyment of seeing Lara Jean, her family, and her friends showing the best of what youth, family, and relationships have to offer. For many of us it was already a welcome escape from an often harsher reality, but as LJ travels to find her place in the world, Always and Forever may be a more satisfying escape than even the first time.
Find all of Jordan Calhoun’s Rotten Tomatoes-approved movie reviews at Jordan Calhoun at the Movies.