When the eye of the broader culture lands on Portland, it sees something that would have befuddled me as a young man who grew up around here: organic restaurants, bike lanes, cool bars, craft beer, all that Portlandia shit.
Portland, the world says, is the haven of the young, the artsy, the ambitious eater and the maker of crafts. You walk into town, breathe it in, and the next thing you know, you have opinions about Parquet Courts. I mean, it's fine. It's certainly a fun city. The broader values of urban West Coast living are definitely at work here and probably even amplified.
But there's another side of Portland, the one I grew up with, that the culture has mostly ignored: a suburban sprawl built around a small city, with bad traffic, high schools, bad weather, teenagers. It's a place where families live. It's not a place the rest of the world really knows about, thinks about, gives a shit about.
Two weeks ago, the movie To All the Boys I've Loved Before premiered on Netflix and has become a minor sensation among people who enjoy gentle romantic comedies about teenagers set in Portland (for no particular reason). It will change the way people see the Rose City forever.
The plot is…odd, a little thornier than your average teen rom-com. Our protagonist is Lara Jean Song Covey (Lana Condor), a half-Asian wallflower who has cordial relationships with most people, but whose real friends are her well-meaning father and sisters: one older and headed off to college, the other younger and precocious—the type of girl who wears a gold chain that says "FEMINIST" on it at age 12. Her mom is dead, as per YA-novel rules.
Lara hates her intense feelings for boys, and every time she falls for one, she stuffs those sentiments into a letter that's tucked away in a box never to see the light of day again. For some reason, though, she places the love notes in envelopes fully addressed to each crush. That makes it really easy for her little sister to pull some real bullshit and mail the confessions, forcing Lara to confront the boys and deal with her feelings while putting her possibly one step closer to finding herself in the warm arms of one of them.
The movie is punctuated with shots of the Willamette River and various bridges around town to let you know this actually takes place in Portland. Aside from that, the setting is just, like, comically evocative of Los Angeles. In one scene, Lara goes to a party at a mansion where, hey look, there are palm trees outside and a giant fucking warm-water aquarium in the living room—the kinds of things never found in homes in Portland. At one point, the characters eat at a roadside diner—aluminum siding and all—the sort of establishment endemic to SoCal but largely absent among the forests of Shari's and other wood-paneled restaurants in Oregon.
But, hey, even if those details are pretty far off the mark, it's still refreshing to see a story about the non-white, un-hip people who populate the Portland area—like the kind who were here before the trends and probably will be after they fade. It's not just another version of Portlandia. We've also got weird teens worried whether anyone likes them, and art should validate that.
SEE IT: To All the Boys I've Loved Before streams on Netflix.