The Young Adult Surge at Netflix Is On, With Two Good Comedies
Posted August 30, 2018 7:23 p.m. EDT
A specter is haunting Netflix: the specter of John Hughes.
“To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before,” which debuted on the service on Aug. 17, and “Sierra Burgess Is a Loser,” which goes up Friday, are highly influenced by Hughes, whose 1980s films, including “Sixteen Candles,” “The Breakfast Club” and “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” created a new kind of teenage movie, one that didn’t talk down to its audience. And these new Netflix movies aren’t afraid to trumpet that influence in clever ways.
“To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before,” directed by Susan Johnson with a script adapted by Sofia Alvarez from a novel by Jenny Han, kicks off by introducing us to the three funny, feisty young females of the Covey household. Kitty, the youngest (Anna Cathcart), announces “I hate when Dad makes Korean food,” and uses an amusing vulgar simile mocking what his cooking tastes like.
Dad is a widowed gynecologist played by John Corbett who apparently never inherited the culinary skills of the girls’ mom, who was of Asian descent. In any event, the oldest sister, Margot (Janel Parrish), is soon off to college in Scotland. That leaves her middle sister, Lara Jean, our heroine, played by Lana Condor (of “X-Men: Apocalypse” and the coming “Alita: Battle Angel”), to ponder what will become of her relationship to Josh (Israel Broussard), her childhood best buddy who became Margot’s boyfriend when adolescence kicked in.
This question might be enough to fuel an ordinary plot for a young adult film, but wait, there’s more. Lara Jean’s secret stash of unsent love letters to Josh and four other crushes winds up being mysteriously stamped and sent to the addressees. Confrontations ensue, one of which bears unexpected fruit.
The hot-yet-nice jock Peter Kavinsky (Noah Centineo), after hearing Lara Jean’s explanation that these letters were mementos for her delectation only and that her crush has passed, sees an opportunity nonetheless. What if Lara Jean were to pose as his girlfriend to make Peter’s snooty ex jealous? And so a plan is born. We know it’s not going to work out the way the kids think it will, but we also know it will end in a way that everyone finds much more satisfying.
Condor and Centineo are charming, and their banter is diverting. As an older man with no children, I don’t immediately relate to such movies. Yet it’s fascinating to observe how they process and depict adolescence. The semiotics are off the charts, really.
There’s a scene in which Peter and Lara Jean trade favorite movies. Lara Jean’s is “Sixteen Candles,” while Peter’s is David Fincher’s black comedy, “Fight Club.” This gave me pause. While I hold “Fight Club” in high esteem, I don’t inherently trust a popular teenage athlete to like that movie for the right reasons.
Later, Lara Jean and Kitty watch “Sixteen Candles” with Peter, who says of its Asian character, Long Duk Dong, “Isn’t this character kind of racist?” Lara Jean replies, “Extremely racist,” with it’s-OK-while-it’s-not-OK confidence. It’s a provocative moment; as Jenny Han herself wrote in a recent New York Times essay, she had to fight, when pitching her novel as a movie, to keep her heroine Asian-American. The way Lara Jean seems to shrug off the racism in “Sixteen Candles” is not a form of excusing it; it’s a way of walking forward from it. You have to admire the boldness of it.
Which is of a piece with the film as a whole. Aside from the real estate porn on display here — Lara Jean’s house is a cozy and capacious American colonial, but all the other kids in this movie seem to have internet billionaires for parents, given the party scenes — the salient feature of this movie’s YA worldview is exceptional self-awareness. Not even John Hughes’ creations were quite so sharp.
“Sierra Burgess Is a Loser,” directed by Ian Samuels from a script by Lindsey Beer, is more conventional in its approach. It’s one of those movies that makes you wonder whether today’s high schools have different entrances on either end of the building, because whenever the popular kids meet up with the unpopular kids, they’re always shot approaching each other from opposite directions in the hallway.
The unpopular kid is the title character, played by Shannon Purser of Netflix’s series “Stranger Things.” She’s sweet, smart (brilliant, actually) and beloved by her sweet, smart parents, both played by veterans of John Hughes films. The dad is a famous author portrayed by Alan Ruck, so memorable as Cameron in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” while Mom is Lea Thompson of “Some Kind of Wonderful” (directed by Howard Deutch but written and produced by Hughes). Sierra is expected to be some kind of literary whiz kid, but what she really wants to do is sing.
And to be liked by a boy. She has no particular boy in mind, at first. But mean girl Veronica (Kristine Froseth) pranks hunky nice guy Jamey (Noah Centineo again — this fellow’s going places!) by giving him Sierra’s phone number after he asks for Veronica’s, and soon Sierra and the unsuspecting Jamey are texting each other and getting along.
Once again, a strange alliance suggests itself: Sierra offers to help Veronica win back a creepy object of desire (by making her look “smart”) if Veronica will masquerade as Sierra by sending cute selfies. It’s kind of “Cyrano de Bergerac” with smartphones. And of course it gets more complicated once face-to-face meetups are scheduled.
As mean girls go, Veronica is plenty mean, but this is one of those compassionate YA tales with a “hurt people hurt people” lesson. Veronica’s damage is explained by an overbearing mom (Chrissy Metz, in a broad performance that’s a big contrast to her role on the series “This Is Us”) who in turn reveals damage of her own. The main point is that Veronica’s collaboration with Sierra makes her a better person, and also helps Sierra’s confidence, although both have to clear some big ethical hurdles to arrive at the happy ending
I am not inclined to watch YA movies for my own fun, but between these two titles and “The After Party,” it’s clear to me that more-watchable-than-average YA movies are an integral part of Netflix’s strategy for world domination. You have been warned.