Looking for Portland in Netflix’s To All the Boys: P.S. I Still Love You
To spot home on the screen, we’ll always have Shrill. And Grimm. And Portlandia, of course. And that one season of The Real World. For movies, there’s Drugstore Cowboy and other Gus Van Sant films, Breaking In, Wendy and Lucy, Mr. Holland’s Opus. These Portland-filmed stories don’t always get everything right (in 1988’s Permanent Record, for example, MAX-riding high school students hang out on ocean cliffs minutes before the bell rings at Benson), yet we can still recognize our city in more than just a few shots of the skyline.
But the 2018 hit Netflix film To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before and its just-released sequel, To All the Boys: P.S. I Still Love You, join the likes of I, Tonya and post-pilot episodes of the current Stumptown in being set in Portland but very clearly not filmed here.
Based on Jenny Han’s young-adult novels, the planned film trilogy introduces Lara Jean (Lana Condor), a high school junior who lives in suburban Portland (instead of Virginia, the books' setting) with her two sisters and their father (John Corbett, who also played a sweet Portland dad of daughters in Ramona and Beezus, another film set here but mostly filmed in Vancouver, British Columbia). In the first movie, we learn that when Lara Jean has a crush, she writes the object of her affections a letter as a way to purge her feelings and move on. She never mails them, and she never approaches the boys in real life; instead, she stays home Saturday nights watching marathon episodes of The Golden Girls on her laptop and baking.
When several years’ worth of letters are mysteriously mailed, Lara Jean ends up fabricating a relationship with a long-ago crush, Peter (played by Noah Centineo, the current top hit in a Google search for “the internet’s boyfriend,” a title that’s also been claimed by Keanu Reeves, also on the heels of a Netflix rom-com appearance, as well as polymath Donald Glover, actor Timothée Chalamet, French soccer player Antoine Griezmann, and more), to avoid facing her current crush. What follows is a top-notch PG teen romance with cross-generational appeal. Throwback touches include Lara Jean’s hearty defense of Sixteen Candles despite its gross racism (Lara Jean’s late mom was Korean) and a best friend with just a touch of Rayanne about her, from My So-Called Life.
The not-quite-Portland disorientation started in the first film, with some establishing shots of Willamette River bridges and the Portland Aerial Tram giving way to a very un-PDX-like “airport’ in Vancouver that looked more like the antechamber to a dystopian gladiator arena. As the film continues, the only glimmer of PDX-ness might be a teen designated driver’s opting for kombucha. It never seems to rain in this Portland, and Lara Jean doesn’t lock up her bike. She just ... leans it against a building ... and can’t even see it out the window from where she’s sitting inside. (My heart raced, but the bike was still there when she got back to it.)
After an Adventures in Babysitting–inspired opening, sequel P.S. I Still Love You offers some more glimpses of Portland with actorless aerial shots of Tilikum Crossing and the Fair-Haired Dumbbell. (Is the wildly painted Central Eastside office building really a local icon already?) Lara Jean and Peter visit the “Portland Aquarium” on a field trip, which hopefully isn’t the place in Oak Grove that closed in 2016 amid investigations of frequent animal deaths and suspicious business practices. Their friend reminisces about seeing Linkin Park at the Crystal (“Linkin Park slaps!”) five years before, when he was 12, tops. (Do 12-year-olds go to a lot of shows there?)
While there’s a tad more of Portland in the sequel, the movie’s a bit of a drag. Now a couple, Lara Jean and Peter have the Andie-and-Blaine problem from Pretty in Pink—all they do is talk about their relationship and worry it’s not going to work out. Their past character traits have largely disappeared, their interactions replaced by weirdly lifeless narration from Condor. The residents of a retirement home where Lara Jean volunteers are presented as quirky backdrop, though one (Holland Taylor) briefly gets to be an older version of Pretty in Pink’s Annie Potts, encouraging Lara Jean to live a little and giving her the perfect vintage dress.
The last film in the trilogy, based on Han’s book Always and Forever, Lara Jean, is in post-production. Since the story promises college visits and a family trip to Korea—where the author was on-site for filming last summer—the pressure will be off Portland (and Vancouver).