To All the Boys I Loved Before, the 2018 Netflix YA hit that launched a franchise and in-house star in Noah Centineo, was integral to the platform’s revival of the rom-com for a reason: it had the ineffable “it” factor. The film, written by Sofia Alvarez and based on the novel by Jenny Han, updated the best of teen romance tropes to the present – awkward yet attractive girl, charismatic yet sensitive Romeo, harmless frenemies; insular school traditions, thwarted flirtations, a good dose of heart and a larger helping of heat. On a streaming platform full of background movies, the first To All the Boys was refreshingly fun to watch.
Along for the Ride, the new Netflix teen romance written and directed by Alvarez, misses that spark. A lot of that comes down to its protagonist. Like To All The Boys’ Lara Jean, Along for the Ride’s Auden (named after the poet – yes, she’s a bookworm) is beautiful, thin, decently fashionable, smart, well-read and lives in an upper-middle-class single parent household. Both are neurotic and awkward, and bury their unspoken desires into the fictional worlds of books.
But whereas Lana Condor plays Lara Jean with endearing charm and a bit of a wink – she’s ridiculously in her own head – Emma Pasarow’s Auden remains barely makes it out of her shell. She’s inexplicably ill at ease and, despite being eminently enviable, starts the film at her prep school’s graduation with no friends. Auden’s aloofness remains confusing throughout – a flat blankness at the center of a narrative that requires some element of charisma. To quote her co-worker Leah (Genevieve Hannelius) halfway through the film: “I don’t get it. I mean, there were people at our school who were way more awkward than you, and even they had friends.”
Auden, too, wants to change, as she baldly states in the opening minutes of the film, based on the novel by YA romance staple Sarah Dessen. Worn down by her exacting professor mother Victoria (Andie MacDowell, playing the role of haughty maternal figure in her sleep) and desirous of change, Auden elects to spend her final summer before college – she has a scholarship to the prestigious, fictional Defriese University – at her father’s house in the sleepy beach town of Colby. Her novelist father Robert (Dermot Mulroney) is too busy to hang out, and repeating the pattern of distracted absenteeism with his infant daughter. Auden’s unsettlingly upbeat stepmother Heidi (Kate Bosworth, throwing all her weight into a Live Laugh Love yoga mom), cracking under the stress of single motherhood in practice if not name, gets Auden a job at her beachwear boutique (whose style Victoria derisively refers to as “cupcake glitter breast implants”).
The beats are familiar if thin: withdrawn and standoffish at first, Auden eventually warms to her trio of uninhibited co-workers – Leah, Esther (Samia Finnerty) and Maggie (Laura Kariuki, a standout). And she meets a mysterious, guarded boy: Eli (Belmont Cameli), a BMX biker and fellow insomniac who spots her at 2am reading on the pier. She wants to be a different, less risk-averse person; he wants a “do-over” and an escape from grief following the death of his best friend and BMX partner. Cameli, who looks as if Alex Pettyfer’s character from Magic Mike was transported 10 years into the future, brings a sly imperiousness to Eli that chafes with Pasarow’s bottled, frustratingly flat Auden and dialogue that often leaves her at a loss for words. It’s difficult to distinguish the line between the character’s awkwardness and the performance’s.
True to Dessen’s style of YA, Auden and Eli’s courtship is slow, physically and emotionally constrained, and mostly absent physical contact. The climax of sexual tension are two passionate kisses, on which the actors and Alvarez, hovering the shaky camera around their heads, deliver. Their first hook-up scene, in particular, is the high-water mark of movie: spotlit shots of the lovers spliced with the joyous splashes of anonymous friends during a night swim – a scene that begins to capture the spontaneity and butterflies of teenage love and play.
That type of spark made, say, the hot tub scene in To All the Boys imprint on the brain, infinitely replayable. There are moments in Along for the Ride – the co-workers’ 6pm dance party, a finale on the beach, camera lingering on the lovers’ bodies in the ocean – where the magic that cements a teen film seems within reach. For a few seconds here or there, you can feel it. The rest of it just passes by like the tide.
Along for the Ride is now available on Netflix