The Magic Optimism In Teen Romance Films

*Spoilers lie ahead for the films “Everything Everything” and “To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before”*

Hollywood has often captured a certain magic with teen romance films. It was done in the 1980s with “Pretty In Pink” and “Say Anything.” As well in 2010 with “It’s Kind Of A Funny Story,” in 2011 with “The Art Of Getting By,” in 2012 with “The First Time,” in 2017 with “Everything Everything,” and now presently with “To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before.” There is an aura of optimism, a shared notion that love truly conquers all, the butterflies in your stomach, and the occasional popcorn throwing at your television when things go awry. Teen romance films are more than a moment’s grace for Hollywood, they are its foundation.

Amandla Stenberg first arrived at my doorstep in March 2012. The starry-eyed, 3c curled actress, made her mark as Ro in the budding series film, “The Hunger Games.” Much later in May 2017, I came across her once more; this time she played Maddy in the feelings inducing film, “Everything Everything.” Maddy is a house ridden teenager with severe combined immunodeficiency (SCID). SCID is a deficiency where the body holds less T-&B-lymphocyte systems, which act as protective cells for the body from diseases and viruses. Living with this deficiency, Maddy found herself isolated in her home with her mother until the suave boy next door named Olly – played by Nick Robinson – moved in.

Anika Noni Rose (Left) and Amandla Stenberg (R).

“Love can’t kill me, mom,” Maddy said to her soon-to-be villainous mother Dr. Whittier, played by Anika Noni Rose. “That’s not true. You’re lucky this time,” the mother responded. This disparity in views of love helps to highlight the crux of teen movies – the innocence of a love unharmed and a love full of opportunity. Earlier on in the film, we had learned Maddy lost her father and brother in an accident when younger. This accident traumatized her mother into falsely believing Maddy had SCID, so as to protect her from the same fate as her brother and father. Maddy, too young to fully conceptualize the losses of both, knew so little of a pain of that magnitude. Her mother’s abrasiveness to Olly was thus justified by this loss in the film, but it was an abrasiveness teen love could care less for.

In a scene where Maddy takes her official first steps out of her home, eyes wide open, shock and awe strewn across her face, the birds singing in the morning, Maddy rushed to kiss Olly. She had cooked up a romantic getaway with the brown-haired heartbreaker, chucking the fears of her immunodeficiency out the door for fleeting love. Young romance takes you there like no other.

When I first saw a sex scene it was raunchy and confusing.

It is the rush of excitement when you meet someone you bond with. It’s the fresh emotions and giggles when they ask you out on a date. They are those sneaky walks you take alone that you don’t tell mom and dad about, and finally that first kiss you had

read, heard, and watched of many times. You had whispers of what it would be like running through your mind but finally, that time had come. If you are anything like me, your diary pages ran out that same day. These are the rushing emotions of purified love that teen romance films offer up. It becomes harder to understand love without these feelings and movies. How could you understand Gaspar Noé’s 2015 film “Love” – a sex-driven film of heated passion and what happens in bouts of lust – without the necessities of optimism that teen films offer up.

When I first saw a sex scene it was raunchy and confusing. I was young; young enough to not understand what was going on, and also restricted from discussions of sex and pleasure to want to. I was not raised on teen romance flicks either and so I was left in dark and unexplored terrain. An introduction to the discussion of love through sex was a complex one and held me far from the topic and feeling for much of my younger years. That coupled with the widespread imagery of beautiful women, and women I would see with partners in films, all modeled after tall, slender, white women. Sometimes blonde, often brunettes.

I felt unappealing and what’s worse felt my plus-size body was tainted and undeserving of love. Teen romance films, in their beautiful glory, offer up a different perspective. Most importantly, they tell of the difference between love and lust. Either is a want and a need for many without judgment but rather endorsement from myself. But I love, love. I have always lived my life through a dream or fantasy without knowing such movies existed where my fantasies for love could find a home. An optimism that there would be that perfect someone for me in the end as there always was in teen movies. Someone who would see my likes and dislikes, my boundaries and room for exploration, and who would show me a new world I would appreciate and feel safe in. Also, can’t forget those butterfly feelings.

Photo by Netflix.

Such was the case with Netflix’s latest film, “To All The Boys I’ve Loved
Before” (TATBILB). Originally a novel written by Jenny Han and released in 2014, Han spent years seeking a production team who would not whitewash her lead character. Thankfully she did, and the 2018 film, directed by Susan Johnson, is a knockout – there are plenty of memes, fan fiction, and ships to prove it.

TATBILB was not a movie I expected to watch every single night since it’s release but here we are. Lara Jean Covey, played by the beautifully talented Lana Condor, and Peter Kavinsky, played by “The Fosters” own Noah Centineo, found themselves matched in a fake relationship after Lara’s little sister sent out five letters to five crushes Lara Jean had written to. The letters were stored away in a box, given to Lara Jean by her late mother. Unfortunately, one of the letters was addressed to Lara’s eldest sister’s ex-boyfriend – Josh, played by Israel Broussard – and so understanding the predicament she was in, she joined forces with Peter, another recipient of a letter, to through Josh off her scent. Peter was busy trying to get his ex-jealous and so blah blah to that let’s get to the good part.

The two drew up a modern day equivalent to consent forms for the fake relationship. Though Peter opposed the no kissing clause, it was an incredible breath of fresh air to see him agree to Lara Jean’s terms. The two worked out each other’s wants and needs with such ease the distant memory of someone saying “grab her by the p*ssy” wandered away. From there, the two participated in a bubble of fantasy of their own. To the world, they were an established couple already in liking and love with one another but to the audience, we watched as the two fell into that stage.

There was the scene where Peter walked into the cafeteria with his hand in Lara Jean’s back pocket – a request of hers in reference to “Sixteen Candles.” He spun her around as she offered up a heart riveting smile. At first, Peter’s stunts are motivated to make his ex-jealous – which affected the whole butterfly feeling – but you see that motivation dwindle as time moved on. One of the most notable scenes for me was when he took Lara Jean’s scrunchie as she tried to put her hair in a ponytail. He instead told her she looked beautiful with her hair down and proceeded to take a photo of her and put it as the background of his phone. We also cannot forget the hot tub scene where Lara Jean finally kisses Peter since they drew up the contract.

Photo by Netflix.

TATBILB leaves you feeling hopelessly in love with the characters on screen. You find yourself falling in love with their version of love, their smiles and their shared laughs – their innocence. You remember that feeling in your own life with your partner, or you dream of that feeling with your crush(es). This is the magic of teen romance films. It really does not matter where you are at your stage in life, the love bug surely will bite.


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