Directed by: Susan Johnson [Boys], Kelly Fremon Craig [Seventeen] || Produced by: Brian Robbins, James Lassiter, Will Smith [Boys], James L. Brooks, Richard Sakai [Seventeen]
Screenplay by: Sofia Alvarez [Boys], Kelly Fremon Craig [Seventeen] || Starring: Lana Condor, Noah Centineo, Janel Parrish, Anna Cathcart, Andrew Bachelor [Boys], Hailee Steinfeld, Woody Harrelson, Blake Jenner, Kyra Sedgwick [Seventeen]
Music by: Joe Wong [Boys], Atli Orvarsson [Seventeen] || Cinematography: Michael Fimognari [Boys], Doug Emmett [Seventeen] || Edited by: Phillip J. Bartell, Joe Klotz [Boys], Tracey Wadmore-Smith [Seventeen] || Country: United States || Language: English
Running Time: 99-102 minutes
To this day, I remain ignorant of much of the inner workings of humankind, including and especially the feminine half. Much of that ignorance is a result of my having grown up with two brothers and zero sisters. I can still count on one hand the number of platonic female friends to whom I’ve felt close, and as I near my 30th birthday and good friendships become harder to sustain as one ages, I suspect that trend is unlikely to change. As such, my interests in the feminine perspective within film stretches beyond the obvious dearth in female writers, producers, directors, and female-centric stories in not just mainstream filmmaking, but filmmaking in general. My “fascination with the female” side of cinema extends past artistic affirmative action advocacy (… how’s that for alliteration?) and is dominated by sheer curiosity. Not so much as a “man’s man,” but rather an unabashed boy, I want to know more about the feminine experience in the most empathetic of art’s media. While women’s suffrage biopics and female-empowerment sagas can be interesting, I find most of them skimp over much of the ordinary charm — from my boyhood’s eyes — about how the other half lives.
Enter second-time director Susan Johnson’s and writer Sofia Alveraz’s To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, based on the eponymous novel by Jenny Han, and first-time writer-director Kelly Fremon Craig’s Edge of Seventeen. The former is another recent teen comedy hit by Netflix, and is also part of the modern rise of Asian-American centric narratives (e.g. Crazy Rich Asians ) in Hollywood filmmaking. The movie’s subject-matter feels almost classical young adult romance material in the vein of the Twilight (2008-2012) films or The Wonder Years (1993-1998), a sort of throwback tone to “simpler times” of youth to which most everybody can relate, and in a good way.
To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before’s (henceforth, Boys) premise and central gimmick concerns protagonist Lara Jean (recent breakout star, Lana Condor) writing secret love-letters to all her girlhood crushes, which she keeps hidden away in her closet until… somebody mails them to all their recipients. Despite how much awkward humor and low-brow slapstick could be mined from this amusing inciting incident, Boys keeps its narrative and protagonist’s arc refreshingly low-key and realistic. The story’s melodrama is limited and its character emoting rather poignant. The quasi-pretend relationship Condor forms with costar and love-interest, Noah Centineo, feels believable given the context, and their emotional connection, genuine. Condor’s semi-platonic friendship with her older sister Margo’s (Janel Parrish) ex-boyfriend, (Israel Broussard) also has surprising depth and deviates from a would-be predictable love-triangle into a meaningful subplot. Condor’s familial characters (e.g. Parrish, Anna Cathcart, John Corbett) aren’t as interesting and feel like missed opportunities, but those are the biggest complaints I have with the film’s screenplay elements.
Boys‘ visual composition is stronger than I anticipated; director of photography, Michael Fimognari, layers numerous shots with impressive foreground to background contrasts (did I spot a split-focus diopter, there?), and shoots most of his dialogue scenes in singles with strategic profile shots rather than the standard shot-reverse-shot format in medium focus. This deliberate, almost Coen Bros’-esque style to Susan Johnson’s dramatic sequences adds much to the characters’ vulnerability and their actors’ emotional performance, giving the overall narrative a warm, homey feel that suits the genre formula.
A notable example of this includes the nighttime sequence where Condor and Centineo consummate their affections in an outdoor hot tub imbued with blue, sensual, almost surrealist low-key lighting; their singles alternate between Centino’s defeated, blunt emoting in a medium single and Condor’s guarded, yet thawing empathy in a profile shot. Both shots converge as the characters meet while the background music builds, a sweet crescendo in their romantic arcs.
Edge of Seventeen is less focused on romance and more on the painful, often constant anxiety that consumes adolescence for many people. Aside from an energetic opening tracking shot introducing our protagonist, a dynamite Hailee Steinfeld, which ends with her confessing her desire to commit suicide to her high school teacher (Woody Harrelson), Edge of Seventeen is visually unambitious. The film’s cinematography is not bland per se, but conservative and deferential to its unconventional script and Steinfeld’s roller-coaster of an arc. What the film lacks in visual pizzazz a la Boys it compensates with its sheer emotional and tonal range.
Seventeen conveys the grinding angst of your standard coming-of-age drama with little of the over-the-top emotion of most teenage comedies, musical or otherwise. Steinfeld drives the action far more than Condor ever does in Boys, and their contrast in personal styles — Steinfeld’s lead is aggressive, tormented, and defensive, while Condor’s protagonist is soft-spoken, shy, and more self-aware — offers a nice contrast in feminine perspectives. Kelly Fremon Craig emphasizes the almost mundane whiplash of teenage emotions through her great cast and effective pacing, which play like ricocheting pinballs off Steinfeld’s insecure high school loner. Much of the story is structured as a series of vignettes rather than a traditional cause-and-effect narrative, which somehow works as a function of Steinfeld’s erratic adolescent behavior. Though Craig’s visual composition doesn’t reflect Steinfeld’s character as much as I’d like, her editing certainly does.
Seventeen’s slice-of-life story is bolstered by a strong supporting cast, including Haley Lu Richardson, Blake Jenner, Kyra Sedgwick, and the aforementioned Woody Harrelson. Each one of these performances is miles above the casts of most teen dramas, including Boys, which is related to how understated each role feels. Everything in the story is viewed from Steinfeld’s closeted, narcissistic, anxiety ridden perspective, meaning the audience doesn’t appreciate supporting characters’ depth until she does, which adds further weight to her tumultuous arc.
Altogether, the visual strengths of To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before and performance strengths of Edge of Seventeen stretch beyond the details of gendered perspectives, a function of reliable filmmaking rather than Academy Award-powered “affirmative action.” Their female characters and distinct feminine perspectives are also irreplaceable elements of their style and charm, on the other hand, and would be completely different films if portrayed from a masculine point-of-view. These sorts of understated, “mundane” sex-specific differences are what drew me to these two films, and are part of what makes them memorable. I don’t pretend to be more enlightened or better woke for having watched them, but I would argue the broader filmmaking culture is made that much richer by their subtle yet identifiable gendered presence.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before is sugar sweet in ways that are both cinematic and heartfelt, while Edge of Seventeen’s blunt yet non-melodramatic contemplation of teenage melodrama is built atop awards worthy casting and acting direction. They make a fine double-feature, especially for those like me who are curious as to how the other half lives… both on-screen and off.
— However… Boys avoids numerous cliches in its traditionalist narrative, yet its familial drama feels somewhat derivative and those familial supporting roles, underwritten. Edge of Seventeen’s characters are rock solid, but the film could use greater visual flair here and there to complement its tight pacing and diverse cast.
? You’ve gotta tell people how you feel when you feel it. You can’t sit in your room writing letters you’re never gonna send.